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Professor Shawn Ritenour: The Vital Role Of The Entrepreneur In Economic Development

Entrepreneurship is well-defined in economics, and well-recognized as the engine that drives economic growth. That means people enjoying greater well-being, including but not limited to material prosperity. But economic growth can be uneven. Some countries, some regions, and even some firms do not generate the same levels of economic growth as others. How do we understand this variability? We look for what holds entrepreneurship back.

Knowledge Capsule

Economic development can be a self-reinforcing cycle of continuous improvement in people’s circumstances.

Greater material prosperity is a valid and worthwhile goal for economic development. But, says Shawn Ritenour, economic development goes beyond that goal: it delivers a greater variety of goods and services that individuals and businesses can use as means to achieve their own diverse ends. The production of this greater variety requires entrepreneurship in the creation of new ideas and the pursuit of new value, and it generates new entrepreneurship by supplying a greater variety of resources to work with in those pursuits.

To generate this cycle, an enabling environment is required — one that acts as a catalyst for entrepreneurship.

Economic development is a multifaceted process in which several forms of human action combine in a system for economic prosperity. It’s not instructive to try to isolate financial capital or capital goods or technology or even human capital, and culture and social institutions can’t be ignored. These sources of prosperity must work together in an orderly fashion to generate the necessary synthesis.

The vital role is that of the entrepreneur.

The entrepreneur is the one who undertakes production, the one who combines resources to produce a product that meets customers’ needs and enables those customers in their own economic pursuits. Entrepreneurs kick off the cycle. Firms and organizations can act entrepreneurially, but it’s fundamental to understand that individuals — sometimes working in teams or committees — are the ones behind entrepreneurial decision-making. The entrepreneur is not necessarily a single person, but entrepreneurship is always a human action.

How do we get entrepreneurship started?

Entrepreneurship requires customer knowledge, technical knowledge and financial capital. Customer knowledge includes the empathic understanding of what’s needed for customers to be able to better meet their own needs. In the context of economic development, this knowledge is probably widely available to private entrepreneurs, but it may not be available to governments, whose understanding is distorted by predispositions to develop specific industries or subsidize specific economic sectors, or towards a particular technology. For these reasons, there can be no “entrepreneurial state”. Individuals with their own ideas and their own private property will provide the energy o break economic inertia.

Technical knowledge defines a sufficient understanding of the technology and technological resources to deliver the desired new value to the customer. In under-developed economies, this technical knowledge may be thin, so reinforcing the technical knowledge of entrepreneurs is appropriate, through education, injections of new technology, training, mentoring, or other forms of knowledge transfer.

With the right understanding of customer needs and the command of the right technology, the entrepreneurs involved in the development state will always need financial capital, because production takes time to organize before cash flows in to the firm from customers. In development contexts, entrepreneurs often will not have savings of their own, and there may not be an appropriate institutional infrastructure of local banks and lenders and investors.

Therefore, customer knowledge, technical knowledge and financial capital combine to provide the foundation for entrepreneurial leadership and growth. They’re integrated: it’s important for the sources of financial capital to understand and appreciate the nature of the customer and technical knowledge that is being deployed. Typically, this takes the form of venture capital or private equity.

Education is another important element in the institutional environment for entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship as a skill or capability can not be taught — it requires a special orientation that’s more developed in some individuals and firms than others. But principles, process and tools can be taught, and experienced entrepreneurs and businesspeople who have developed market savvy can share knowledge that they have acquired. Communicating the entrepreneurial mindset and methods in all stages of education will help to create and promote an entrepreneurial community that’s supportive of economic development.

One aspect of learning is to understand the entrepreneurial ethic of sacrifice, that it takes a lot of time and effort and expenditures and extended commitment before business success can be achieved. There’s more hard work than there is magic.

Institutional elements such as property rights and sound money are important components of entrepreneurial development.

Property rights and sound money may sound like abstract concepts, but they are extremely influential in economic development processes. Property rights mean that entrepreneurs can assemble and go to market with their own resources in whatever way they prefer. Sound money means that entrepreneurs can anticipate a return from their productive activities that’s not eroded away by inflation, and they’re not led into miscalculation by monetary manipulation (e.g., unanticipated escalation of future borrowing costs).

Removing obstacles to entrepreneurship is the best economic development policy.

Traditional approaches to economic development favor centrally planned initiatives, government spending, and policies in the form of subsidies or special incentives. They’re not typically market-based approaches. But the right approach is the opposite of policy-making. Instead of trying to design and add new structures, development should be focused on the removal of barriers — on identifying what’s getting in the way of nurturing a rich and robust entrepreneurial culture, and focusing on the removal of those obstacles. Leave the entrepreneurs to identify the specific products and services and businesses that can flourish, and to attract the investment capital that will support those businesses, without the need for “policy”.

Additional Resources

The Economics of Prosperity: Rethinking Economic Growth And Development by Shawn Ritenour: Mises.org/E4B_214_Book1

The Economics Of Prosperity (Edward Elgar): Mises.org/E4B_214_Book2

Shawn Ritenour at Mises.org/Ritenour

Shawn Ritenour at Grove City College: Mises.org/E4B_214_Profile

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