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The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism: Schumpeter, Chandler and the New Economy

Author(s):Langlois, Richard N.
Reviewer(s):Diamond Jr., Arthur M.

Published by EH.NET (August 2009)

Richard N. Langlois, The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism: Schumpeter, Chandler and the New Economy. London: Routledge, 2007. ix + 122 pp. $140 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-77167-2

Reviewed for EH.NET by Arthur M. Diamond, Jr., Department of Economics, University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Fritz Machlup said of his old friend Joseph Schumpeter that his method was one of ?methodological tolerance? (1951, p. 95). The same seems to be true of Schumpeterian Richard Langlois, whose recent book displays a wide range of toleration and erudition in issues addressed, methods respected, and fields of research perused. To pull so much together, so well, is impressive. Equally impressive are Langlois? credentials as a Schumpeter scholar: he was invited to deliver the Graz Schumpeter Lectures, which serve as the basis for the current succinct monograph. And in 2006, the manuscript was named a co-winner of the Schumpeter Prize from the International Schumpeter Society. Hopefully the accolades will be enough to overcome the book?s high price, in order to bring the book the wide readership that it deserves.

Langlois seeks to understand the changes in the role of the corporation in capitalism over the past two centuries. He is an eclectic scholar who makes use of theories and evidence from several periods and disciplines. So on one page Langlois illustrates a point by mentioning the importance of ?aero-derivative combined cycle generating technology? (p. 86), while on the next page, he refers to the ?Hegelian? (p. 87) turns of an argument. He also frequently (and cheerfully) avails himself of work done on the ?fringes? of the mainstream (e.g., p. 84).

He is himself mainly a theorist, whose method is somewhat akin to that of many neo-Austrians. He generally eschews formal mathematical analysis in favor of careful, almost philosophical, reasoning. Like Schumpeter, Langlois places very high value on research in economic history, although his goal is mainly to use such research, rather than to contribute to it. He makes many brief references to findings from economic history research; and recounts one long example: the history of the Swiss watch industry.

Langlois? book is about the role the large corporation plays in economic growth (pp. 6-7). He favorably cites many scholars, but finds most value in the economist Joseph Schumpeter and the economic historian Alfred Chandler. He starts off with the relatively simple claim of Chandler and (sometimes) Schumpeter that as capitalism matures, the large corporation plays a large and continuing role as the source of efficiency, and maybe of innovation. One way to express the goal of the book is to say that Langlois is attempting ?to reinterpret Schumpeter and Chandler in a way that preserves the essence of their contributions while placing those contributions in a frame large enough to accommodate both the rise and the (relative) fall of the large managerial enterprise? (p. 9).

Chapter 1 discusses what it means for capitalism to become progressively ?rational.? Chapter 2 discusses the rationality of capitalism mainly in the context of Schumpeter, and Chapter 3 discusses it mainly in the context of Chandler. Economic history is given more attention in Chapter 4 which discusses the rise of the corporation, and in Chapter 5 which discusses the return of the entrepreneur.

Langlois broadly divides industrial capitalism into three stages, which he characterizes as the invisible hand (pre-1880), the visible hand (1880-1990), and the vanishing hand (post-1990). During the stage of the invisible hand, production was local, small-scale and entrepreneurial. During the stage of the visible hand, Alfred Chandler?s hierarchical, multi-functional corporation dominated. During the stage of the vanishing hand, the entrepreneur, and small-scale firm return to dominance, although some corporations survive, especially in providing some general purpose technological infrastructure in areas like communication, transportation and fabrication.

Langlois believes that during the stage of the visible hand, increases in the extent of the market in the United States gave the large scale corporation a temporary advantage. But new technologies, notably in information technology and computers, have returned the advantage to the small scale firm operating in the market. In Langlois? extended account of the history of the Swiss watch industry it is the modern entrepreneur Nicolas Hayek who saves the industry by finding a way to restructure it. Entrepreneurial capitalism is not obsolete.

The broader lesson is that conditions change, and when they do, new institutional forms may be better able to deal with them than are the current institutional forms. Langlois sees the changing institutions of capitalism as evolving solutions to a ?design problem? of how best to ?buffer uncertainty? as conditions such as population, income and technology change (pp. 66-67). The entrepreneur solves this problem through an experimental, intuitive, trial-and-error kind of rationality, rather than a formal, calculating, rule-bound kind of rationality. But because there are many vested interests that oppose such changes, the charisma of the entrepreneur often is required to make the change happen.

I believe that there is much that is plausible and useful in Langlois? account. My reservations are more of nuance and emphasis. For example, I prefer my arguments a little thicker with the evidence, and a little thinner with the conceptual parsing. And Langlois often sees the innovative entrepreneur as responding to opportunities presented by exogenous changes in the business environment, where I suspect that ?high level? entrepreneurs often are driven by their own visions of what can be created.

We have over 200 years of capitalism so far. Langlois goes a long way to help us to understand what has happened. He gives plausible, nuanced, judicious accounts, always trying to fairly present alternative views, even when he ultimately rejects them. He is well-aware that path-dependent contingencies, the choices of policy-makers, and the creativity of entrepreneurs can all make a difference in the form that the institutions of capitalism take. In the end he puts most weight on institutions as solutions to changing ?problems? posed by often exogenous changes in technology, incomes, population, and the like. He worries that such an account may verge on historicism (and he is right to worry). But even those (like me) who place greater weight on contingencies, choices and creativity, will find in Langlois a very erudite, intelligent, plausible, and clearly-written account.


Fritz Machlup, ?Schumpeter’s Economic Methodology.? In Schumpeter: Social Scientist, edited by Seymour Harris, 95-101. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951.

Arthur M. Diamond Jr.?s publications are mainly in the areas of labor economics, economics of science, economic methodology, and the history of economic thought. He has recently published several papers related to Schumpeter?s process of creative destruction, and is at work on a book entitled Openness to Creative Destruction.

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Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII