You didn’t invent that! Or deflating entrepreneurship and on historical explanations

Consider the following sentences

  1. Without the State/Elon Musk we would have no iPhone/SpaceX
  2. The role of the State/Elon Musk was crucial for the success of the iPhone/SpaceX
  3. The State/Elon Musk played a very important role in the development of the iPhone/SpaceX
  4. The State/Elon Musk were one of the factors  that played a role in the development of the iPhone/SpaceX
  5. The State/Elon Musk played a minor role role  the development of the iPhone/SpaceX
  6. The State/Elon Musk had nothing to do with the development of the iPhone/SpaceX

Full disclosure: I’m an Elon Musk fan and I don’t own nor consider owning in the future any Apple products.

Here we have an ordering of different causal attributions for the State inventing the iPhone and Elon Musk creating SpaceX (yes, NASA played a role). Mazzucato seems to think that for the iPhone case, 1 or 2 are true. I think 3-4 are more likely. For Musk, however, it does seem that his own person did play a role so important to deserve the 1 or 2 sentences. (As would Jobs with the iPhone) But wouldn’t that be evidence in favour of the Great Man Theory of Innovation in which individual factors are totally important and against which I just argued in a previous post? No.

To see why, we have to remember a distinction made in a post some time ago between discoveries, inventions and applications.

A discovery is a finding of a constant relationship between variables that allow us to better predict and understand a phenomenon. Discoveries would be quantum mechanics, fluid mechanics, or electricity, and in general, all natural scientific knowledge, together with mathematics. These relations are invariant, and it is understood that the discoverer only reveals what it always had been there, it does not create anything new.

An invention would be conceiving and building for the first time a functional archetype with certain inputs that produce certain outputs. By functional archetype I mean a concept that covers many particular applications. For example, “thing that lights” is a functional archetype that covers candles, lightbulbs or fire. “Thing that allow land movement” would cover cars, bicycles, or trains. New discoveries allow for more archetypes to exist. Aircraft were not possible in Ancient Greece, although the idea of birdlike flight was already there. A concept upon which to base an invention can be there for centuries, until technology enables it to be implemented.

Finally, an application is a particular member of a functional archetype. Obviously, archetypes and applications can be categorised in many arbitrary ways, but I think the idea is useful, and some categorisations are more useful than others. Whatever lightbulbs from Whatever Corp., iPhone model whatever, or the Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket are applications. They are based on discoveries, they belong to a functional archetype (lightbulbs, smartphones, rockets) and they are concrete. Usually, when someone invents something, that invention is also the first application of the invention.

For example Maxwell discovered the laws of electromagnetism, Tesla applied them (along with his engineery skills of trial and error) to invent the alternating current induction motor, and finally we can find a concrete type of induction motor applied in the cars manufactured by Tesla Motors. So neither Maxwell or Tesla (or Elon Musk) invented or designed the motor in said car. It was a Tesla Motors engineer who did that.

So going back to Musk and the iPhone, what Musk did was to implement a specific member of the rocket archetype, and open up the truly reusable rockets archetype. Without Musk there would have been no particular application. No company called SpaceX who hired the people they hired, did the things it did, and designed the rockets it designed. But that doesn’t preclude the possibility of other applications of the same archetypes. Musk deserves praise not only for an incremental advance in rockets (reducing their price), but also for working towards reusable rocket. But even in this second case, the idea of a reusable rocket was already there: the infamous Space Shuttle attempted to be that, but it was too early: it was a costly mistake. Technology had  not advanced enough to be able to do proper reusable machines.

Without Musk there is no Falcon 9 and without Jobs there is no iPhone. But from there you can’t go to no reusable rockets and no advanced smartphones. For the Great Man Theory to hold, it would be necessary that they also were necessary for the functional archetypes themselves to be envisioned.

Similarly, without the government, there are no applications that depended heavily on that. But again, no necessary effect on inventions and discoveries, except them being sooner or later.

So when we say that someone invented, or implemented something (the iPhone is an application, not an invention (unless you want to say that iPhone-type smartphones are one), according to my categories) we just mean that a functional archetype added just one more member to its set of members, and/or that a new functional archetype appeared. It is the final link in the chain the one who gets to be called inventor, but now we see such title is much deflated: it is a link in a chain, not an übermensch.


According to the the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, an entrepreneur

is someone who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise. An entrepreneur is an agent of change. Entrepreneurship is the process of discovering new ways of combining resources. […]

Two notable twentieth-century economists, Joseph Schumpeter and Israel Kirzner, further refined the academic understanding of entrepreneurship. Schumpeter stressed the role of the entrepreneur as an innovator who implements change in an economy by introducing new goods or new methods of production. In the Schumpeterian view, the entrepreneur is a disruptive force in an economy. Schumpeter emphasized the beneficial process of creative destruction, in which the introduction of new products results in the obsolescence or failure of others. The introduction of the compact disc and the corresponding disappearance of the vinyl record is just one of many examples of creative destruction: cars, electricity, aircraft, and personal computers are others. In contrast to Schumpeter’s view, Kirzner focused on entrepreneurship as a process of discovery. Kirzner’s entrepreneur is a person who discovers previously unnoticed profit opportunities. The entrepreneur’s discovery initiates a process in which these newly discovered profit opportunities are then acted on in the marketplace until market competition eliminates the profit opportunity. Unlike Schumpeter’s disruptive force, Kirzner’s entrepreneur is an equilibrating force. An example of such an entrepreneur would be someone in a college town who discovers that a recent increase in college enrollment has created a profit opportunity in renovating houses and turning them into rental apartments.

Mazzucato had defined it in a similar way, and in principle I also share this definition. Entrepreneurs see what others don’t see, and act on that knowledge to change something. Hence, yes, everyone has a little entrepreneur inside, but relevant entrepreneurship in this context is the one related to innovation, and of some impact.

Can groups be inventors? Can groups be entrepreneurial? If you think of a group of friends and one of them is Steve Jobs, is this an entrepreneurial group? No. But it would be if the group of friends have and work towards a common purpose. The problem with the Entrepreneurial State, or a Entrepreneurial Army, or an Entrepreneurial DARPA is that is is difficult to see this sense of shared understanding and common purpose -save, maybe, in the latter. States and Armies are large organisations, and its parts don’t have as much in common as our group of friends. For a State to be Entrepreneurial you would need the entire State to be focused on doing entrepreneurship, and you only get that in totalitarian regimes. Except for that, more reasonable examples that could be put forward would be the Manhattan and Apollo Projects. (But then see the Einstein-Szilárd letter to see how the former began. It wasn’t a group of bureaucrats courageously deciding that they had to build nuclear weapons, although later there was). It isn’t much meaningful to talk about the role of the State, in general, in science in innovation, but to apply a healthy dose of reductionism, and focus where innovation happens: in the innovators and scientists, their teams and their labs. You can then go upwards if a level has sufficient cohesion. A team of scientists working on a project can be said to have invented or discovered something. But if you have a lab with several teams, and they don’t talk that much about their projects, then the single team will have discovered or invented whatever, even if one would like to grant say that the lab discovered it. You can say it, because it isn’t that removed from the truth, but it’s not quite the truth.

Finally, if all of the teams are working on pieces of a bigger project, and they produce scientific-technological output, you can say that the lab invented/discovered that. If you have several labs in tight collaboration, then the labs invented that. If an entire nation is focused and hell-bent on something, and they achieve that, the achievement can be said to correspond to the whole nation.  (Again, except for wars and totalitarianism this is quite rare). Greater degrees of cohesion make causality attribution at lower levels difficult. “The Allies won World War II” makes sense, but when you begin to say that the US won, or that the USSR did, you start to get into counterfactual troubles. It is even harder to say things “the US Army” won WWII or “the US Navy” won WWII. By themselves it seems they didn’t. Synergies are so strong here that there isn’t a prevalent sub-factor.

Historical Explanations

The above discussion also applies to any historical discussion. To assign importance to an event or person, you have to think of the conterfactual: what would have happened had this not happened? The more different the counterfactual is from what did happen, the more important the event or person is. I could write more, given that I have historical explanations on the title, but I most of what I wanted to say is already said, and though I can produce lines and lines of fluff, time is precious, and I want my writing to be efficient. So that’s it.

I hope to return to more empirical and historical posts after this theoretical detour.

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1 Response to You didn’t invent that! Or deflating entrepreneurship and on historical explanations

  1. Pingback: Linear models: Comments on Ridley | Nintil

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