My, my, what bizarre entrepreneurs you have

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 10.05.2019

Among entrepreneurs, “regulation” is a dirty word. It’s the parent who won’t let the teenager go out, the bouncer who won’t admit the fun-loving drunkards. It’s a buzzkill, a wet blanket, a downer. It is seriously uncool, impedes progress, stifles life. If only you didn’t have to comply with all that pesky regulation, you would be free to realise all your potential—and all those profit margins would be as wide as a Nebraska horizon.

When Americans go on about freedom, it’s easy to make them the butt of the joke: if you live in a society where schools hold drills for active shooter scenarios, how free are you, really? But freedom holds another sense, an entrepreneurial one. Freedom means making a living for yourself with no other advantage than innate commercial sense. Among our core values are that you have a right to play the market, and you have a right to keep what you win. There is a special place in hell for any regulator who would unjustly get in the way.

An American newspaper captures the sentiment nicely in a “modern fable” published in 1902 by Robert Howard Russell, in which an archetypal youth from the States goes to Europe to study. In Paris, the boy does nothing but grow his hair and spend his money, habits of laziness that he brings home with him afterwards. Tellingly, what the boy loses while abroad is called “the Commercial Spirit.” This is obviously the Spirit by which Russell defines Americanism: what is lost, away from home, is that sense of commerce, without which the boy is taken for a grotesque and helpless idiot upon his return.

Over a century later, commerce remains a well-defined point of pride in the States. Its European counterpart, however, feels like an uncanny flop. We know that this continent leads the way in haute couture, social safety nets, and ruined castles, but businesses seem to persist here only in a subdued, uncelebrated way. Nobody dwells for long on startups or popup shops, new apps are slow to proliferate, switching to online channels seems to be a chore. It’s messed up.

Not in America. We want to be the first to use new inventions. Newness is coolness, startups are personalities, consumerism is a skill. So when we hear that Luxembourg has banned Uber, it comes as a destabilising blow. If small startups are niche interests, then hugely successful startups are beacons of modernity (not to mention national treasures). Why would Luxembourg be an enemy of comfort, capitalism, and the future?

This thinking is symptomatic of the Commercial Spirit. In the words of one Reddit user who travelled to Luxembourg: “It’s bullshit that Uber is not here. Taxis are super expensive.” If the marketplace has solved a problem, then the consumer has a right to the solution (no matter, apparently, the cost to the life quality of workers). Damn that regulation for gumming up progress.

This line of thinking also contains a dangerous assumption: if one party dislikes regulation, then the other party must like it. A buzzkill naturally wouldn’t recognise itself as a buzzkill, so must consider itself a responsible defender of sense. This is a trap of linearity that Americans fall into, a trap that suggests that Europeans are cautionary fogies who fear change, that their blasé moods regarding startups must indicate a love for the status quo. But such assumptions discredit the reality of European consumerism. Europeans love buying things and starting companies, and they are not especially cautious, per se, or outdated.

Rather, there is a less anarchic sense of the marketplace in Europe, complemented by a better experience of government systems. Most importantly, on a collective basis, Europeans simply care less. American culture is marked by a Sisyphean need to build: we are forever building our country, our identity, our future. European cultures tend rather towards the need to evolve, a verb which has far more allegiance to the past. Europeans are concerned with preserving their lifestyles, with adapting the future to the ideals of the present. Americans are miserable dreamers; Europeans are fulfilled curmudgeons. Americans will abandon the Post Office the day that drone delivery is perfected, whereas Luxembourgers – many of whom already live in communes that prohibit lawn-cutting on Saturday mornings – will hesitate. How much noise do these flying robots make? Will they ruin my view of the sky? How many jobs will be lost?

As such, Luxembourgish entrepreneurialism has less responsibility to the national psyche, which puts a whole other set of colors on it. Despite the Grand Duchy’s burgeoning scene of startup hubs and facilities, with all the dressings of Silicon Valley, its colors are not quite as flashy or destructive as those of their Californian counterparts. There is probably far more consternation for Luxembourgish parents when their kid quits a big company to run off with a startup. American parents will say: Kyle is changing the world! European parents will say: Gilles is flushing his future down the toilet.

Of course, none of this is strictly true. There seems to be a huge anti-capitalist movement happening in the States, with a generation of young workers revolting against student debt, bad salaries, unpaid internships, and crappy benefits. Likewise, young Europeans everywhere are jumping on new trends and cutting sharply individualised career paths for themselves. But the wider backgrounds of each place are still made from the rough shapes of their heritage: Europeans know some secret about life that makes jazzy technology seem dull by comparison, and Americans possess a weird eagerness to cast their lifestyles into the trash in favor of a mildly upgraded one.

What would a deregulated Europe look like, or a more systematised America? The future of one would not resemble the past of the other. There is no telling in which specific way the youth of a new modern fable, written in 2102, would appear grotesquely idiotic after living in the other place. Though the idiocy itself is probably guaranteed.

Jeffrey Palms
© 2019 d’Lëtzebuerger Land