Review of Landes, Mokyr and Baumol's the Invention of Enterprise: Entrepreneurship from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times

By Marotta, Michael E. | Libertarian Papers, February 2011 | Go to article overview

Review of Landes, Mokyr and Baumol's the Invention of Enterprise: Entrepreneurship from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times


Marotta, Michael E., Libertarian Papers


THE INVENTION OF ENTERPRISE: ENTREPRENEURSHIP FROM ANCIENT MESOPOTAMIA TO MODERN TIMES. Edited by David S. Landes, Joel Mokyr, & William J. Baumol. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010

THIS ANTHOLOGY DELIVERS 17 authoritative essays by accomplished scholars, surveying the sweep of history as seen from the vantage point of trade and commerce. The presentations on ten cultures from 20 different researchers are necessarily varied in perspective. uniting them are their answers to the question, "What is entrepreneurship?" In the Preface by William J. Baumol, three hypotheses are presented. First, entrepreneurs find practical application for new inventions. However, in addition to those obviously creative actions, corrosive enterprises enrich their operatives without apparent net benefit to others. That, too, is enterprise because (third) "the direction taken by entrepreneurial activity depends heavily, at any particular time and in any particular society, on the prevailing institutional arrangements and the relative payoffs they offer ..." Of course, other definitions have been offered. Peter Schumpeter, Israel Kirzner, Frank Knight, and even John Keynes, are referenced across the essays. But these three hypotheses frame those other views.

Little here will be challenging, except, perhaps by omission. The Babylonians are here, but their long distance trade with the Hittites is not. Michael Hudson ("Entrepreneurs: from the Near Eastern Takeoff to the Roman Collapse") validates our belief that Plato and Aristotle, among other sources, show that merchants and craftsmen were held in lower esteem than farmers and soldiers. That does not explain the invention of coinage, nor the contemporary rise of the tyrants as self-made men, nor the vibrant commerce in goods such as wines and ceramics that were nominally available both at home and from abroad. It may be that our assumptions are defined only by the surviving works of a few writers whose opinions are too easily accepted by the would-be philosopher-kings of later academies and lyceums.

Similarly, Louis P. Cain ("Entrepreneurship in the Antebellum United States") chronicles Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston without mentioning their competitor, Cornelius Vanderbilt. Senator Douglas Stevens and the Illinois Central are here, but James J. Hill and the Great Northern are absent from "Entrepreneurship in the United States, 1865--1920," by Naomi R. Lamoreaux. The history of the computer revolution covered by Margaret B. W. Graham, feels the same as Cornella Wunsch's telling of the Neo-Babylonians: as if the author researched it professionally, without actually living through it. If Steven Levy's Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution were condensed to a dozen pages, it would identify the salient moments and crucial decisions of the significant entrepreneurs, which this chapter did not.

The economic histories of the Islamic/Arabic matrix, China and India, are each covered in single chapters. They are like a view of the Earth from the International Space Station: admiring the geography is easier than finding the people. Nonetheless, from orbit, a telescopic lens on a commercial television camera reveals water wells in the desert, each no more than two meters across. And here, too, within the panoramic sweep are individuals.

In "The Scale of Entrepreneurship in Middle Eastern History: Inhibitive Roles of Islamic Institutions," by Timur Kuran we meet Ismail Abu Taqiyya, a coffee merchant who was active 1580 to 1620. (His story is told fully in Making Big Money in 1600: The Life and Times of Isma'il Abu Taqiyya, Egyptian Merchant by Nelly Hanna, Syracuse University Press, 1998.) Like many innovators, Abu Taqiyya met social and religious resistance: coffee was considered an intoxicant; and so "black water" was opposed by clerics. Mobs attacked and burned coffeehouses. Finally, in a courtroom, it was demonstrated that people who drink coffee exhibit no signs of slurred speech, dull wit, or lethargy. …

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