Peter Klein: When Policy-Makers Discover The Benefits of Entrepreneurship, They Can’t Resist Intervening

Innovative entrepreneurship is the segment of the entrepreneurial economy that is especially highly focused on innovation via new products and services. Within innovative entrepreneurship there is an even brighter spotlight on NTBF — new technology-based firms that are cutting edge, scalable, and fast-growing. They represent only one form of entrepreneurship, but one that is very interesting. Indeed, they attract the interest of government and government policy-makers. A recent special issue of the Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal, a top journal for which our friend Peter Klein sits on the editorial board, examined the impact of policy on entrepreneurship itself and on the institutional and social challenges of these policy interventions (see Mises.org/E4B_112_SEJ).

Key Takeaways

Government policy-makers take an interest in innovative entrepreneurship when they are trying to grab some credit for economic growth and improved goods and services.

Both micro policies and macro policies aim at stimulating successful entrepreneurial and innovative outcomes. Policies to encourage the growth of green energy supplies, for example, are a micro policy; they apply only to firms engaged in particular activities. Changing bankruptcy laws (so that the reallocation of assets can proceed faster and more smoothly) or an educational initiative to support entrepreneurship teaching in school would be classified as macro policies: trying to create a new set of conditions that apply to all firms, all entrepreneurs, all technologies.

Government doing nothing to intervene is another — highly desirable — kind of macro policy: maintaining a social order in which entrepreneurs can operate with the least uncertainty about the future regulatory environment.

At minimum, government interventions in favor of entrepreneurship fail to properly consider trade-offs.

Analysis of policy starts from trade-offs. Every policy has trade-offs. Economists are the ones to point this out. Politicians just want one button to push to achieve one specific goal. All that is needed, they presume, is a piece of legislation that provides a tax break or a subsidy to the firms they want to succeed. But there are always trade offs. Directing funds or capital to one group of firms diverts it from another group. The consequences are unknown and can’t be known. What if the current crop of battery technologies, for example, do not include the one that will emerge as a more efficient alternative in the future? By subsidizing today’s technology do we constrain the emergence of a better one in the future?

Evidence suggests that neither macro policies nor micro policies are successful or effective.

One example of ineffective micro policy is intellectual property protection for selected technologies or firms. One of the papers in the Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal special edition looks at fast tracking patents for particular technology areas. One of the outcomes identified is the diversion of resources to overinvestment in legal protections and excess litigation with all its attendant economic costs.

Regulatory systems are another form of macro policy. An example is the number of days it takes to get the permits to open a new business. Reducing this would be a macro policy that could be effective. Peter Klein made the comparison between Singapore vs India on this variable, pointing out the correlation with greater speed of innovation in the former, encouraging new and unintended applications of technology.

But often, regulatory permissions favor well-funded and well-connected firms over the young and agile, and certification signals may not be completely accurate about underlying quality.

Micro interventions are targeted to boost outcomes by helping a particular firm or technology. Bureaucrats claim they can make better decisions than the market about resource allocation. They identify so-called “market failures” to be corrected (like fossil fuels causing pollution), and market decisions that they believe should be over-ridden. They don’t want to let consumers buy the gas-powered SUVs they prefer.

There’s no reason to believe these policy makers will get their decisions right. They certainly don’t have the incentives to do so, since they are not governed by profit and loss. They can easily pick the wrong projects.

Some interventions may be dismissed as irrelevant, but they may still produce distortions.

The papers in the Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal special edition point out that many of the cash payments / subsidies / tax breaks are given to firms that would have launched any way and been successful anyway. One paper (not in this collection, but cited by Professor Klein) found that the major effect of research grants in STEM is to increase the salaries of scientists rather than encourage scientific experiments that wouldn’t otherwise take place. The result is not better science, but a better life for scientists (that is, those who know how to win grants).

The private sector can stimulate basic science and government subsidies are not needed. For example, pharma companies encourage basic research at private companies via the incentives they provide via M&A strategy — an exit plan from the lab for basic science. In general, firms trying to develop new products and services for the market do a lot of the scientific discovery in the early stages of production. The government is not needed.

When government does provide venture capital (more frequently in Europe and Southeast Asia than in the US), the researchers reporting in this journal edition identified the receipt of such funds as mostly a marketing signal, enabling firms to enroll bigger partners, or get a prestigious underwriter for their IPO as a consequence of the positive imagery derived from being a subsidy winner.

Non-policy is a more promising and potentially more effective approach to encouraging entrepreneurship.

Culture is an example of non-policy. A culture that encourages experimentation and creativity, and assigns a low level of stigma to boldness whatever the result, is likely to attract more investment and accumulate more capital than a culture of more traditional norms favoring continuity. Cultural evolution like this is less likely to occur in a system where the state directs investment and chooses industries and sectors for support. One outcome is a negative view of business when business success is determined by getting close to government: in those cases, individuals tend to think badly of all business, including entrepreneurial businesses.

The verdict: maintain a healthy skepticism about the case for interventions to support entrepreneurship.

Overall, the evidence is not in favor of either macro-interventions or micro-interventions to stimulate innovative entrepreneurship. How should the individual entrepreneur think? It may be an ethical issue: whether or not to accept government subsidies or support. Nevertheless, the entrepreneur must make the best use of available knowledge, which includes knowledge of the regulatory regime. One of the papers in the collection finds that entrepreneurial businesses can make better connections with the right kinds of capital and partners as a result of government involvement. At some level, this kind of knowledge is a defensive mechanism for the real world.

And at least the regulators and policy makers are recognizing entrepreneurship as a positive force for growth and for good.

Additional Resources

Read the management summary of the Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal special edition (PDF): Mises.org/E4B_112_SEJ

“Effects of Institutions and Policies on Entrepreneurship” (PDF): Mises.org/E4B_112_PDF