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The Entrepreneurial Spirit

Geoffrey Nunberg

"Fresh Air" commentary, Oct. 28, 2004

When the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations published its list of the top 101 sayings of 2002, it included a remark that George W. Bush was supposed to have made to Tony Blair: "The problem with the French is that they have no word for 'entrepreneur.'"

After the list appeared, though, a spokesman for the Prime Minister denied that Bush ever said anything of the sort. I believe him. It sounds like exactly the sort of remark the English would cook up to put in the mouth of an ignorant American.

In fact despite the right's current disdain for the French and those who speak their language, "entrepreneur" is one of President Bush's favorite words, and he pronounces it with all the sensuous pleasure that foodies give to "mousellines de foie gras." Speaking in Virgina a few months ago,  he said, "entrepreneur --  isn't that a lovely word? You know, entrepreneur -- we want entrepreneurs."

"Entrepreneur" first came into English as a fancy name for a theatrical promoter -- in French, the word just meant somebody who undertakes something, the same as the Italian "impressario." But it was soon being used for people who promoted investments or ran business schemes, occasionally with a slightly unsavory connotation. A 1951 article in The New York Times described the gangster Frank Costello as a "slot machine entrepreneur."[1]

The word didn't really come into its own until the Reagan years. As it happens, that was when champions of the free market revived "capitalism" in place of the more genteel-sounding "free enterprise" that had been predominant for most of the century. But the redemption of "capitalism" didn't extend to "capitalist," which still connoted silk-hatted predators like J. P. Morgan. "Entrepreneur" seemed ready-made to fill that gap as a name for the risk-takers and business-builders who were the new heroes of the market economy. An entrepreneur was basically the same thing as a capitalist, only  played by Jeff Bridges instead of Lionel Barrymore.

By the 1980's, "entrepreneur" was more than ten times as common in newspaper articles as it had been in the 1950's.

Mentions of "Entrepreneur" in NY Times Articles, by Decade

Business schools started offering courses in "entrepreneurship," a word that was practically nonexistent before then.[2] And people retroactively awarded the label to men like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, who were never called entrepreneurs in their lifetimes.

Not to be outdone, management consultants coined the new word "intrapreneur" to describe the plucky-self starters who chose to remain at their corporate jobs -- the item  gets 10,000 hits on Google.

But in recent years, free-market enthusiasts have been spreading "entrepreneur" around in a new, more democratic way that would have had the French scratching their heads. About  a week ago, for example, Commerce Secretary Don Evans complained to Wolf Blitzer that the Democrats have been citing unemployment figures drawn from the payroll survey, rather than the household survey that counts Americans who are self-employed. According to Evans, "Senator Kerry … wants to ignore the some 10 million workers in that survey that are the entrepreneurs who are self-employed like truck drivers, like painters, like child-care workers, like hairdressers, like auto mechanics."

It's true that for most people the word "entrepreneur" doesn't bring to mind the guy who does dump runs in his pickup truck or the manicurist who works out of her home. And Evans' description might strike you as just another milestone in the great American tradition of job title inflation. You have the picture of those 10 million entrepreneurs standing shoulder to shoulder with WalMart's 750,000 "sales associates" and the "customer service executives" who answer the phone when you call Comcast to ask about your cable bill.

But the new use of "entrepreneur" is part of a great leveling of the language of capitalism, which sweeps away the old distinctions between capital and labor -- or at least the growing proportion of the labor force who are foregoing health coverage and a steady salary to make their own way in the world. Last week you were merely an employee, now you're doing the same work on a piece-work basis as a paid-up citizen of the ownership society.  

True, some economists have pointed out that the self-employment rate always goes up when the economy heads south. The Economic Policy Institute's Jared Bernstein coined  the term "involuntary entrepreneurship" to describe the upsurge -- I make that a strong candidate for the American Dialect Society's word of the year.

But a lot of people prefer to think of the increase as a healthy flowering of entrepreneurial spirit, after a two-decade decline. A report from the Kauffman Foundation applauds the sharp rise in self-employment among blacks and Hispanics as a sign that those groups have a higher rate of entrepreneurship than whites and Asians. And the popular conservative blogger Glenn Reynolds sees the shift to the new entrepreneurial economy as presaging decreases in crime and traffic and a more close-knit family life, not to mention a jump in the sale of comfortable office chairs for the home market.[3]

"Entrepreneur" unquestionably has a lot more cachet than old-economy phrases like "piece work" and "for hire." But new job titles have a way of losing their luster if they don't come with new carpeting in the bargain. Writers who are paid by the word don't often think of themselves as the medieval knights errant that "free-lance" originally brought to mind. For that matter, "employee" doesn't have the panache it did when the Victorians first borrowed it from French as a high-fallutin substitute for "clerk." 

So it's unlikely that all those peripatetic car detailers and day-care workers are suddenly going to see themselves as having the same economic interests as Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, even if they all have the same title on their business cards. What "entrepreneur" really comes down to these days is just "Will undertake stuff for food."

1.Cf. "The Jew, by force of innumerable circumstances, had always been engaged in a variety of meaningless occupations. "Small trading" is a good term to apply to it, perhaps: buying and selling haphazardly, running small shops on smaller profits, acting the entrepreneur on a primitive scale." The New York Times,  July 6, 1924. return

 2. Over the hundred years before 1965, "entrepreneurship" appeared in New York Times articles just 5 times. In the years since then, it has appeared 929 times. return

3.As it happens, those are exactly the benefits that people foresaw for the upsurge in telecommuting that was predicted in the 1990's. As John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid observe in The Social Life of Information, that proved to a wash, since it turned out that people liked to go to the office -- the number of people working at home actually declined over the 1990's. But the economic downturn may yet achieve in the current decade what technology by itself couldn't accomplish in the last.

Copyright © 2004 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.