I learned from Herr Mozart that musical creativity, like economic growth, proceeds in fits and starts, and we should not be so obsessed with short term fluctuations.Bill's post is written at the level of analogy, which is fine. But there is in fact a real-world connection between individual creativity and change at the scale of particular communities or even entire societies. The nature of that connection is not only an interesting puzzle to ponder, but in my view the fundamental question in the study of economic development.
Also I would not dare apply the words “random” or “lucky” to The Marriage of Figaro. Bursts of creativity, like bursts of rapid growth due to, say, entrepreneurial breakthroughs, may be temporary but they are not “random” in any mechanical sense. They reflect the best of humanity’s purposeful activity, and they stay with us forever even if the original creative moment is fleeting.
There are at least two ways of posing the question. The first is: Are people just noise? Creativity fluctuates at level of individual, but simple laws of statistical aggregation might seem to imply that societal outcomes should be smooth. They are not. So why does the law of large numbers not apply in cases of discontinuous societal change prompted by individual action? How is it that small-scale fluctuations in talent and creativity, both among people and within a single life, end up having large-scale impacts?
There a lots of answers in theory to this version of the question--herding & other types of increasing returns, chaotic dynamics, self-organization. There is also a rich tradition of addressing something like the same question in philosophy and literature (best in my view: second epilogue to War and Peace and Nietzsche's "Philosophy of History"). I also started in this direction using a culinary, rather than musical metaphor, a while back. These ideas could the be subject of multiple future posts, essays, or books...or, maybe, none at all. Because I don't think that this version of the question is the most interesting.
The interesting version of the question is a much more practical one, namely: Are entrepreneurs just noise? Easterly's earlier post re. system change suggest that they just might be. His link bait for that post: "The most important thing I can ever say: development is NOT about solutions, it IS about problem-solving systems."
An excellent recent post by @penelopeinparis gives solution-finders a bit more credit:
I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that when a bunch of crazy French doctors decided to create Doctors without Borders during the Biafra war, everyone around them must have thought they were absolutely off their rockers.I fully concur that this is the real question. Indeed, the direction @penelopeinparis appears to be going is, well, music to my ears.
What about Henri Dunant, the idealistic businessman whose disgust with the horrors of Napoleonic wars lead to the creation of the Red Cross? (Did you catch that? Henry Dunant was a businessman with no experience in anything remotely connected to humanitarian aid)
There are several types of aid entrepreneurs; a fact that sometimes seems to get lost on critics and supporters of NGO entrepreneurs alike. Not everyone is an Henri Dunant, Bernard Kouchner or Greg Mortenson,...
The real question, for me, is how do we support the kind of innovation that does create positive change, all the while weeding out all the useless and potentially harmful amateurish initiatives?
UPDATE: @bill_easterly offers this pithy rejoinder via Twitter: "My response on giant potential scale: hello nonrival ideas"