Launchpad Republic: A book review by Bob Morris

Launchpad Republic: America’s Entrepreneurial Edge and Why It Matters
Howard Wolk and John Landry
Wiley (Auhgust 2022)

How “a dynamic entrepreneurial economy” has balanced ” the right to compete with property rights”

Consider the fact that most (if not all) of the current Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. were originally a startup and most (if not all) of their founders were entrepreneurs. In this book, Howard Wolk and John Landry provide an abundance of information and insights while exploring an historical period that extends from the colonial settlements through the current day, what they characterize as a “balancing act between rewarding builders and enabling challengers, often the same people.” This force, this entrepreneurial edge, “has been at the heart of the American entrepreneurial economy. It has been our internal combustion engine of progress.”

They then suggest their approach: “We show how the American political economy evolved to manage the dynamic between upstarts and incumbents¬† and to balance the various competing forces at play.” They go on to point out, “Just as it is difficult to maintain democratic government over long periods of time, it is hard to sustain an economy that favors both disruptive competition and stable property rights. But the United States has pulled it off, and the ensuing creative destruction has astounding gains in living standards and material prosperity. While daring entrepreneurs and the country’s entrepreneurial spirit deserve most of the credit, the political, legal, and institutional systems are not far behind.”

Wolk and Landry organize their material within ten segments and devote a separate chapter to each:

1. Two pillars of a dynamic entrepreneurial economy: competition and property rights
2. Differences and conflicts between startup invaders and incumbent defenders
3. Colonial entrepreneurism
4. Independence: a revised economy with new perils and new opportunities
5. Balancing the influences of Hamiltonianism and Jeffersonianism
6. Winning the Civil War to preserve a union
7. The rise and fall of large corporations during much of the 20th century
8. Revival of upstarts from the 1980s until the present
9. Fundamental changes in how to balance interaction between startups and incumbents
10. Preserving — and improving — whatever will achieve future success: the co-authors’ concluding observations and recommendations

In or near the central business district of most major cities, there is a farmer’s market at which merchants (at least before pandemic viruses) have offered slices of fresh-cut fruit as samples of their wares. In that same spirit, I offer a selection of tasty comments from the several dozen that caught my eye:

o ‘In the 1950S, political scientist Louis Hartz noted that the United States features a long-standing tradition of limited government involvement in the lives of its citizens. Hartz and others identified the key attributes of this tradition as a strong orientation toward individualism, the absence of an embedded aristocratic class, and an egalitarian approach toward social and political life. Personal liberty and rational self-interest constitute the essence of the American culture.” (Page 11)

o John Locke’s concept of natural rights “cast a long shadow over the 18th century, including many of the Founding Fathers in the colonies and the Scottish Adam Smith. Writing in the 1770s, Smith explicitly acknowledged this basic individual right [i.e. property ownership] in The Wealth of Nations, noting ‘the property which every man has in his own labor…is the original foundation of all other property, so it is sacred and inviolable.” (48)

o “For all of its entrepreneurial success, America was still an immature economy in the decades leading up to the Civil War. A frenzy of competition ensued from the 1830s, triggered by [Andrew] Jackson as well as the general movement to open corporation laws, the proliferation of banks, and continued westward expansion. Two major panics, in 1837 and 1857, added to the instability. To some, it was the conquest of the self-made man and new entrepreneurs (generally small businesses) over the merchants and capitalists of the first decades after independence.” (95)

o “The movement away from large incumbents took on a decidedly cultural tone in the field of computers. The industry’s anti-authoritarian streak began on the West Coast in the 1950s, when the ‘Traitorous Eight’ left Shockley Semiconductor to found Fairchild Semiconductor, which in turn spawned numerous ‘Fairchildren,’ including Intel. This legendary ‘mutiny’ created Silicon Valley lore that only increased with the Beat Generation in the 1960s.” (137)

o “America’s separation of powers, federalist structure, independent judiciary, and individual rights have all combined to allow competing interests to balance out over time and with some sense of process.” (192)

Howard Wolk and John Landry urge their reader to continue to look to entrepreneurs to solve problems [within both startup and incumbent organizations] and to citizen-consumers-shareholders to play important roles in driving change. “Leveraging the country’s great tradition of entrepreneurial energy to address challenges will not only ensure the country’s future success but build on the entrepreneurial revolution that it has sparked around the world.”

Launchpad Republic is a brilliant achievement. Bravo!

Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out American Entrepreneur: The Fascinating Stories of the People Who Defined Business in the United States, co-authored by Larry Schweikert and Lynne Pierson Doti and published by AMACOM (2009).

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