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The Invention of Invention

June 1, 2010

Over a transcontinental weekend, mostly at a cruising altitude of 36,000 feet, I was able to finish Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist. (It’s illustrating just this kind of miracle of progress that this reassuring book excels at.) I can’t heap any more well deserved praise on it than it has already received. Here’s Robin Hanson’s review. Overall, I see it as a companion volume to Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz’s From Poverty to Prosperity, only with a broader narrative sweep and a more directed argument against the nay-sayers of progress and wealth creation. Its key argument is that trade and specialization are the drivers of prosperity. For someone like myself who accepts these tenets as articles of faith, it’s a nice positive dose of confirmation bias. My post on the Levers of Wealth and Freedom shares many similar themes to Ridley’s book, in case you haven’t seen it.

On the other hand, what’s interesting to me is that it led me to question my own hip pessimism. Not the platitudes of smelly little orthodoxies, like those preached by the limits to growth crowd or the dry heat sink prophesied in environmental apocalypse. No, Ridley led me to believe that perhaps I’m too pessimistic about the growth of government and the centralization of power, the coming cascade of sovereign debt defaults and/or hyperinflation, the pervasive economic stagnation induced by accumulating parasitic elites, and so on. True–in the short run, these may kill the bees that produce today’s honey. There were a number of centuries between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance. But over geological time scales, perhaps I should be more sanguine about the brush fire of innovation. If invention in the U.S. declines, so what?  Ridley convinces me the torch will be picked up elsewhere. Tho I should add that Ridley doesn’t address these concerns at length. I’m only thinking reasonable anarcho-libertarians may have their own pessimistic biases as well.

Anyhow, the book’s narrative doesn’t touch on innovation in governance and national rule-sets, but some parallels come to mind. Like improvements in other technologies, progress in governance will come from exchange and invention–and not from the top down efforts of academics and vested interests. For instance, many have argued that advances in basic science propelled the industrial revolution, but Ridley says this gets cause and effect backwards. First comes trade, adaptation, and improvisation–then comes understanding. I would argue the same holds for political philosophy and governance. This passage particularly struck me as relevant (p. 257):

The twentieth century, too, is replete with technologies that owe just as little to philosophy and to universities as the cotton industry did: flight, solid-state electronics, software. To which scientist would you give credit for the mobile telephone or the search engine or the blog? In a lecture on serendipity in 2007, the Cambridge physicist Sir Richard Friend, citing the example of high-temperature superconductivity–which was stumbled upon in the 1980s and explained afterwards–admitted that even today scientists’ job is really to come along and explain the empirical findings of technological tinkerers after they have discovered something.

The inescapable fact is that most technological change comes from attempts to improve existing technology. It happens on the shop floor among apprentices and mechanicals, or in the workplace among the users of computer programs, and only rarely as a result of the application and transfer of knowledge from the ivory towers of the intelligentsia.

Or as Patri is fond of saying, Hong Kong is more eloquent than a thousand dissertations.


  1. June 3, 2010 6:45 am

    Er, I meant to say “impossible for a country to indefinitely consume more than it produces.” I blame the Hennessey.

  2. June 3, 2010 6:43 am

    Excellent post. I really liked the observation that “first comes trade, adaptation, and improvisation–then comes understanding.” I suspect that’s similar to how things will play out with the collapse of various sovereign economies. Their implosion will be followed by a begrudging understanding and acceptance of what we’ve been saying all along – that its impossible to consume more than one spends.

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