Small Scale Entrepreneurs Are Nothing New

The rise of the sharing economy and related trends, by which individuals are exercising more control over their work schedules and income flow, garners a lot of praise from free market advocates and the usual panicky horror from anti-capitalists. But in both cases it’s being seen as something new; a revolution by which everyone with a Task Rabbit account now has become a profit-maximizing firm of one for the first time. Today’s busy, app-driven professionals would seem to have little to do with, for example, tenant farmers at the dawn of the 16th Century.

Yet the forces that have liberated human beings (most of us, at least) from the endless cycle of subsistence farming and famine have had a long history. By at least the Tudor era in England, farmers and their families were exploring new ways of maximizing the returns from their lands, expanding into different operations, and supervising their own complex financial transactions. Importantly, it was not just people who owned their own farms—their own “means of production”—that were becoming more entrepreneurial. It was also tenant farmers, who paid rents to landlords for use of the land they farmed. In fact, given the significant overhead of renting land, it was the tenant farmers who arguably had more incentive to innovate.

The historical BBC series Tudor Monastery Farm, first broadcast in the UK in 2013 and currently available on YouTube, gives a nice summary of this trend at the beginning of episode two.

In 1500, England was at a crossroads. The subsistence farming of the medieval era was giving way to a modern spirit of commercialization. A world dominated by the Church and the rhythm of farming was now opening up to a new force – money. As great landowners, the monasteries had capitalized on their land and their tenants for centuries, controlling everything, from crop production to new technologies and trading relationships with merchants. But now as more and more monastic farms were being rented out, Tudor tenant farmers realized that they too could make a profit from the land.

[Historian and series co-host] Ruth [Goodman] is doing the monthly accounts. “In 1500, those farmers who are in a position to rent large parcels of land from people like the monasteries, were becoming much more businessmen, and perhaps businesswomen. They were thinking much more in terms of profit and loss and accumulated wealth than perhaps had been the case before. I mean, this is a moment in which farming is beginning to change into something that's closer to the buying and selling and trading and merchant thinking that we're so accustomed to these days.”

There’s a popular but very simplistic narrative about the history of modern work for everyone who wasn’t rich: everyone worked on muddy farms, then everyone worked in dingy factories, then everyone worked in sterile shops and offices, then Uber and Airbnb happened, and now everything is different. There is something worthwhile to highlighting the decline of the agricultural workforce (in the U.S., it dropped from over 90 percent in 1790 to about 1 percent today), but obviously the story is far more complicated than that. One of the key complications is that everyday people in previous centuries had more access to economic mobility and capital, and more motivation to make use of that access, than we usually give them credit for today. If we want to understand the challenges of modern economic dynamism, it is useful to know something about the ones that came before.