State of Innovation

Patents and Innovation Economics

Libertarians vs Classical Liberals on Patents and Inventors

The libertarian crowd has been at the forefront of the anti-patent crusade.  It is important to understand that libertarians are not consistent with classical liberals, such as the founding fathers and Locke.  I have been looking for a way to illustrate this.  Then I ran across a Wall Street Journal article by Matt Ridley, a darling of the libertarian crowd, which illustrated the differences perfectly. The article ostensibly was about government funding of science. I am sympathetic to the thrust of the article, however, in the second paragraph he states:

“Suppose Thomas Edison had died of an electric shock before thinking up the light bulb. Would history have been radically different? Of course not. No fewer than 23 people deserve the credit for inventing some version of the incandescent bulb before Edison, according to a history of the invention written by Robert Friedel, Paul Israel and Bernard Finn.”

This struck me as a very odd paragraph in an article on government funding of science. Edison was not funded by the government. Mr. Ridley and the people he cites may have never worked in fundamental research or with inventors. This may result in a misunderstanding of the differences between various inventions that lay people group together, which is the case with the paper cited in the article.

mostpowerfulideaRidley’s sole argument about Edison rests on the idea that other people were working on the problem. Thousands of people have tried to solve Fermat’s last theorem since 1637. Does that mean Andrew Wiles proof in 1994 was inevitable? Alternatively, only Edwin Armstrong worked on and invented FM (frequency modulation). Does that mean FM was not inevitable?

The article does stop there however, it goes on to denigrate the work of almost every great inventor and scientist since the Enlightenment, concluding with the statement:

“Simultaneous discovery and invention mean that both patents and Nobel Prizes are fundamentally unfair things. And indeed, it is rare for a Nobel Prize not to leave in its wake a train of bitterly disappointed individuals with very good cause to be bitterly disappointed.”

Ridley is not just attacking government funding of science, he is contending that discoveries and inventions are equally likely, given a range of researchers. If you take the statement above literally, it means that everyone working in technology and science are robots.

However, Ridley provides no evidence for his position and ignores the large variations in the rate of science advancement and inventions in both time and geography. This is not surprising, as Mr. Ridley did the same thing in his book The Rational Optimist, where he claims that most inventions were never patented, however a simple fact check showed that every invention he mentions is the subject of numerous patents.

The excellent book, The Most Powerful Idea in the World by William Rosen, shows that the Industrial Revolution, which was really an explosion in new inventions, was the result of property rights for inventions, i.e., patents, as does my book Source of Economic Growth.

One of the differences between classical liberals and libertarians is that classical liberalism celebrates great people, particularly those who used reason in the areas of science and technology. The Enlightenment was about celebrating the power of reason and rejecting faith and determinism. Thomas Jefferson said the two of the greatest people in the history of the world were Isaac Newton and John Locke.

Perhaps Ridley’s position is not shared by most libertarians. Yet, a recent panel discussion on Reason TV, part of the libertarian magazine Reason, shows Ridley’s position is widely shared. One panelist compared patents to slavery and taxi medallions. Another panelist made Ridley’s point that most inventions were never patented. But, if you eliminated everything in your house that was subject to a patent or made by a process that was once patented, your house would not exist. Most people will quickly understand that all the electronics would be gone, but so would the refrigerator, the electrical power, and even the glass in your windows was subject to patents extending back to Venice.

It would be easy to brand such an anti-intellectual property as arising from jealousy or self-aggrandizement, however, I think that would be a mistake. These libertarians are pushing a version of F. A. Hayek’s cultural evolution. Hayek’s ideas on cultural evolution are based on the impotence of reason. Hayek argues, that the demand for rational, conscious (“political”) control of the concrete particulars of social life is based upon a misunderstanding of the process of cultural evolution and on a hubristic and dangerous overestimation of the capacity of the conscious reasoning intellect.”[1]

Ridley is just applying Hayek’s ideas on cultural evolution to science and technology. He is not the only one; the libertarian/Austrian economist Peter Lewin from University of Texas at Dallas, sadly my alma mater, makes a similar point. He emphasizes that most technical knowledge is tacit knowledge which is something we know but cannot prove or of which we are not conscious. In other places Lewin discusses “social knowledge” which appears to be tacit knowledge we hold collectively. Both Lewin and Hayek are fans of David Hume, who said causation does not exist (or cannot be proved) and induction is invalid or could not be proven valid. For many libertarians the anti-induction, anti-reason David Hume, is a hero.

Classical liberals know that causation exists, that Induction as a methodology, is not only valid, but the source of all knowledge. The most important value to a classical liberal is Reason. They understand that there is no such thing as social knowledge or knowledge of which we are not conscious. Classical liberals understand each person’s mind functions independently and therefore they celebrate great inventors and scientists. They know that without these great people, it is entirely possible that we would still be living in the Dark Ages. One only need look at North Korea, Cuba, or the Middle East to understand that technological progress is not inevitable and is not the result of some determinist spontaneous order.

What is interesting if you look closely at the arguments of Ridley, Hayek, and Lewin is that they are collectivist at an epistemological or cultural level. Their argument against a centralized government appears to be that it distorts this collectivist acquisition of knowledge.

Classical liberals and libertarians both appear to support free markets or capitalism. Beyond this they diverge, especially for the modern beltway libertarians. Classical liberals base their support of capitalism in reason and natural rights, which are discovered by reason. Libertarians base their arguments for free markets based on collective acquisition of knowledge that is disrupted by government interference.

Libertarians often align themselves with Ayn Rand, and claim her as one of their own, however, their ideas are incompatible with Rand’s. Rand herself was highly critical of the creed of Libertarianism, calling them “hippies of the Right.” If Matt Ridley had written Atlas Shrugged, the economy would have hummed along based on spontaneous order and John Galt would not be a genius inventor.

 

 

 

 

[1] http://www.firstprinciplesjournal.com/articles.aspx?article=1513&theme=home&page=3, Hayek on the Role of Reason in Human Affairs, Linda C. Raeder, Palm Beach Atlantic University

December 1, 2015 Posted by | -Philosophy, News, Patents | , , , | 5 Comments

The Rational Optimist: Excellent Book, Disfigured by Open Source Utopianism

The author, Matt Ridley, has written an excellent book that is epic in the scope of issues he tackles.  The book covers why homo sapiens thrived while other members of the homo genus fail.  He shows that on average the human condition has gotten consistently better and this increase in wealth has been especially true in the last 200 years.  He destroys the noble savage myth.  He shows the intellectual failings of Marxism, environmentalism, self sufficiency, and renewable energy.  His two main themes underlying these vast topics are: 1) trade leads to division of labor, which leads to invention and 2) the inexorable march of human progress.

Despite Mr. Ridley’s incredible breadth of knowledge, there is a logical gap in his first thesis when he attempts to explain the industrial revolution and why it took off in England.  This logical gap is the result of his misunderstanding of intellectual property.

This misunderstanding of intellectual property is most likely due to his open source utopianism.  This utopianism leads the book to conclude “Thanks to the internet, each is giving according to his ability to each according to his needs, to a degree that never happen in Marxism.” P. 356.  Even with this imperfection, this is an incredible book that I highly recommend to anyone.

Population Density – Good or Bad for Wealth Creation?

The book argues that population density is necessary for trade and division of labor, which is the route to economic prosperity.  It also argues that the division of labor leads to inventions, which leads to further specialization.  Specialization requires a large enough market to support it and as a result population density is the friend of economic progress.  However, later in the book it argues that increasing population caused a decline in the living standards of Japan and Denmark.  This decline supposedly occurred because the increasing population decreased the value of labor and therefore the market for specialization and inventions.  England escapes this fate because of coal and phantom land in the colonies.  This contradiction between the need for human density for specialization and economic progress and the idea that increased population density reduced the value of labor destroying the market for inventions is not adequately resolved.

The book argues, starting on page 52, that trade is what allowed homo sapiens to succeed where other apes failed and even other humans failed such as Neanderthals.  It provides numerous examples of how various groups of humans regressed technologically because of inadequate population densities to support specialization, such as Tanzania.  The book summarizes the lessons by quoting economist Julian Simon “population leading to diminishing returns is fiction: the induced increase in productivity is scientific fact.”  P. 83.

In a chapter entitled “Escaping Malthus Trap,” Ridley discusses how Japan after a period of prosperity gives up its technology.  He states “that sometime between 1700 and 1800, the Japanese collectively gave up the plough in favour of the hoe because people were cheaper to hire than draught animals.”  P. 198.  The reason for this according to Ridley was rapid population expansion due to paddy rice technology.  This population boom made labor cheap and killed the market for technology.  Denmark follows the same path as Japan and by the 1800s becomes “trapped by its own self sufficiency.”  P. 200.  Britain escapes the Malthusian trap that Japan, Denmark, and Ireland suffer, according to Ridely, because of selective breeding (maybe p. 200), ghost acres provided by the colonies (p. 202), release valve emigration to the colonies (p. 202), and coal (sustained industrial revolution p. 216.)

There is a logical inconsistency between the conclusion early in the book that population density is necessary for prosperity, but later in the book arguing that prosperity stalled after a burst in population in various countries.  The explanation of selective breeding, does not explain why the US or Australia prospered.  These countries were heavily populated by British rejects.  Similarly, the ghost acres provided by the colonies were eventually used up.  It might be argued that there was some tipping point that could only be achieved with ghost acres.  I think this fails also, because it flies in the face of the book’s earlier argument that increased population densities allow more specialization and invention to increase everyone’s standard of living.  The release valve emigration fails for the same reasons as the ghost acres.  The emergence of coal is also unsatisfying.  Coal mining was known before the birth of Christ and trade in coal occurred in England as far back as the 1300s, according to Wikipedia.  The book also argues that many surges of economic growth were extinguished by parasitic political systems.  However, it never states this is why Japan’s and Denmark’s prosperity was reversed.

What was new in the industrial revolution was not coal, but the machines to use coal and numerous other inventions.  The book argues that these inventions were not in general due to new scientific discoveries, p. 255, and I agree.  So why at this particular point in time did we have a sudden increase in rate of technological advance, including machines that used coal?  The beginning of the industrial revolution coincides with the recognition of property right’s in inventions.  The US constitution states (Article 1, section 1, clause 8) that inventors have ‘RIGHTS” in their inventions.  Patents, which are legal title to an invention, are the only free market system for encouraging people to invent.  While Britain had a patent system at least back to the Statute of Monopolies, 1623, it did not recognize a right to property in one’s invention.  It was a royal grant, subject to the whims of the ruling monarch.  As a result, it was expensive and arbitrary.  However, when the United States recognizes that inventors have a property right to their invention, this provides a whole new incentive to inventors and their financial backers.  No doubt this attitude towards inventions also infected Britain.  For more on the correlation between real per capita increases in income and patent systems see Source of Economic Growth.

Mr. Ridley argues that patents at best have marginal effect on the rate of invention.  However, Mr. Ridley shows an appalling lack of knowledge about patents and intellectual property.  He also has a number of inconsistent statements about intellectual property.  For instance, on page 267, he states that copyrights have little effect on the creativity of musical composers.  However, on page 326 he states that Nashville was saved by music entrepreneurs using good local copyrights in the 1930s.  Not only are these two statements contradictory, there is no such thing as local copyrights in the United States.

Patents

The book has numerous other errors about intellectual property.  For instance, it states that intellectual property is not like other property, because it is useless if you keep it to yourself, p. 262.  This statement is nonsense.  The Coca Cola formula is not shared and this is the only reason it has any value.  A patent to an invention (legal title to an invention) only has value if there is some ability to exclude others from using it – as opposed to knowing about it.  If everyone can make a laser without pay royalties, then it may have value to the world but it has no differential value to the inventor.  Patents are derived from exactly the same philosophical basis as real property.  Namely,  Locke’s theory of Natural Rights.  For more information see Scarcity – Does it Prove Intellectual Property is Unjustified? Below are a list of some, but not all, of the book’s errors related to patents:

1) The book then states that people get rich by selling each other things and services not ideas, p. 263.  What are authors, professors, engineers, scientists, really selling?  Authors are not selling books, they are selling ideas that just happen to be embodied in books.  The Kindle proves this.  The Kindle does not allow the user to buy a book, but to buy the ideas in a book.  Professors are either selling the teaching of ideas or just an expensive way to bore students.  Engineers are selling a service, which encompasses ideas not the paper (digital ones and zeros) on which it is written.  Most companies do not make money manufacturing things, they make money with inventions (ideas) that are implemented in things.  When a company only sells things with no (new) ideas in these things, then their profit margins are extremely narrow.  One of the limitations on growth has been this Luddite refusal to allow inventors to specialize in inventing.  This book’s premise is built on the division of labor, but the author rejects this idea when it comes to inventing.

2) Mr. Ridley also seems to be confused between the spread of information related to inventions and the legal right to use that information to build an invention.  It is a major goal of modern patent systems to spread information about inventions so that they can be used by other people to build other inventions.  In the U.S. we built patent depository libraries to spread the wealth of information in patents (before the internet).  Patents encourage people to share the information associated with their inventions instead of keeping them a trade secret.  Countries without patent systems tend to invent mainly things that can be protected with a trade secret.  (See Switzerland before they adopt a patent system)  As a result, other inventors do not get learn from these inventions and the rate of technological progress is inhibited.

3) The book perpetuates the first mover advantage alternative to patents.  Xerox had the world’s greatest first mover advantage in plain paper copiers, when it agreed to settle an antitrust lawsuit in 1975 by giving away its patent portfolio.  Its market share went from almost 100% in plain paper copiers to 14% in just four years.  The first mover advantage is a fairy tale.

4) The book argues, p. 264, that there is no evidence that patents are what drive inventors to invent.  This statement is completely illogical.  Real property rights are not what drive farmers to farm or builders to build houses.  Nevertheless, there would be a lot less building and less efficient farming, if we did not have real property rights.  Just look at countries, where property rights in buildings and land are hard to impossible to obtain.

5) The book states that a number of inventions were never patented, p. 264, such as automatic transmission, Bakelite, ballpoint pens, cellophane, cyclotrons, gyrocompasses, jet engines, magnetic recording, power steering, safety razors and zippers.  While it is possible that the first version of some of these inventions were not patented, all of these inventions were subject to numerous patents.  This can be easily verified with a simple patent search.  For instance, there are at least 20 patents and probably hundreds of patents on automatic transmissions.  The same is true of ballpoint pens, gyrocompasses, jet engines, magnetic recording, power steering, safety razors and zippers.  A simple internet search shows that chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland (1863-1944) invented and first patented the synthetic resin that we know as Bakelite in 1907.[1] Jacques E Brandenberger was granted patents to cover the machinery and the essential ideas of his manufacturing process of the new film (cellophane).[2] The assertions of no patents for the zipper is also easily shown to be incorrect.  Elias Howe, who invented the sewing machine received a patent in 1851 for an ‘Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure’ (zipper).[3]

6) The book argues that the Wright brothers, enforcing their patent on airplane control surfaces, supposedly shut down the airplane industry in the US.  This is the typical propaganda of open source community.  First of all the Wright brothers were building airplanes, so the industry was not shut down by enforcement of the patents.  Second stealing other people’s property is not shutting down industry, it is shutting down theft.  We would not say that someone stopped the harvest of wheat, because they did not let someone else reap the wheat they planted on their land.

7) The patent thicket argument is repeated by Mr. Ridley to suggest that patents inhibit advances in technology.  A number of papers[4] have shown that there is no empirical evidence for the patent thicket argument and that the logical analogies on which it is based are flawed.  For more information see  Intellectual Property Socialism: Part IV USPTO Takes Aim at Inventors.

8) Mr. Ridley further demonstrates his ignorance of patents by repeating the concern that the US Patent Office was issuing patents for human genes in the 1990s, p. 265.  What the Patent Office did and does was issue patents on “isolated genes.”  This is similar to patents on things like isolated forms of vitamin B12, which was patented.  For more information see Gene Patenting Debate Continues.

9) The book also mistakenly calls a patent a “temporary monopoly.”  A patent is a property right, just like property rights in land, houses, cars, etc.  The logical basis for patents is exactly the same as other property rights.  Property rights are based on Natural Rights, which states that since you own yourself you own the product of your labor (physical and mental).  For more information see The Myth that Patents are Monopolies.

10) He also implies that patents are top down solution to encouraging invention.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  All a patent system does is provide property rights to inventors for their inventions.  This is similar to property rights for land, which is a bottom up way to increase the productivity of farming for instance.  Just giving pseudo property rights to peasants in the USSR and China caused enormous increases in farm production.  Property rights are a bottom up solution, not a top down solution.  In fact, the genius of the United States patent system (as opposed to Britain’s) is that it was accessible to all people, including women and slaves that had no property rights under their state laws.  This encouraged a torrent of inventive activity in the U.S. that propelled it from a backward farming country to an economic and technological powerhouse in the world in less than 60 years.  For more information see the excellent book by B. Zorina Kahn, The Democratization of Invention: Patents and Copyrights in American Economic Development, 1790-1920.

Open Source

I am convinced that Mr. Ridley’s poor research on patents and intellectual property is due to his infatuation with the open source movement.  On page 356 he opines that genetic research will soon go open source.  He is so excited about open source that he eventually suggests a Marxist’s open source utopia – “Thanks to the internet, each is giving according to his ability to each according to his needs, to a degree that never happen in Marxism.” P. 356

The open source movement has been a dismal failure.  Its biggest success has been to extend UNIX (LINUX) to personal computers, other platforms, and add new features.  Open source has mainly extended existing technologies, much like the incremental invention that can be expected from large companies.  The open source movement deludes itself into believing they are fighting some sort of David versus Goliath battle against large corporations and the patent system.  The reality is that open source developers are giving large corporations, such as IBM, their efforts for free and weakening the bargaining power of technical personnel.  The open source movement plays right into the hands of large corporations and other large institutions, by weakening the property rights of developers in their work.  It should be no surprise that open source has been an abysmal failure, since this exactly the situation most of the world lived under until 1800.  Before modern patent systems, new inventions were rare and the return for the invention was often controlled by a trade guild.  The members of the trade guild profited equally, meaning there was little incentive for the inventor to spend time creating.  Per capita income of the world before 1800 had been stagnant for millennia.  Where modern patent laws were adopted around 1800, incredible increases in per capita income occurred.  Mr. Ridley trumpets this progress throughout his book.  In areas without patent systems, we see stagnant growth in per capita income.  For instance, Japan’s per capita income does not take off until they copy the US patent system in the 1860s.

It is unfortunate that this excellent book is disfigured by the author’s irrational infatuation with the open source movement.  This infatuation causes the author to embrace the logical contradiction that increases in population density increase economic growth and also causes the Malthusian trap (decreases in economic growth).  It also causes him to reject the solution to the Malthusian trap, which is the recognition of property rights in inventions.


[1] http://bakelitecollector.com/bakelite-history 7/21/10

[2] http://inventors.about.com/od/cstartinventions/a/Cellophane.htm 7/12/10

[3] http://inventors.about.com/library/weekly/aa082497.htm

[4] Ted Buckley, Ph.D., The Myth of the Anticommons, Bio, http://www.bio.org (2007); Epstien, Richard A., Kuhlik, Bruce N., Is there a Biomedical Anticommons, Regulation, (Summer 2004), pp. 54-58

July 22, 2010 Posted by | -Economics, -History, -Philosophy, Innovation, Patents | , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

   

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