Commentary on the Nature and Causes Innovation, and the Implications for Public Policy

November 18, 2003. In many of the public policy debates in Washington DC proponents of various positions assert that their proposals will further innovation, invention, and creation. The arguments often continue that this, in turn, will create jobs, wealth, prosperity, and now, homeland security. Claims of this nature are not limited to debates over patent, copyright, and other intellectual property laws. They are central to debates over government involvement in research and development, funding for universities, education policy, immigration policy, taxation, and communications policy.

Innovation is invoked in many different debates, often by competing interests advocating vastly different policies. Also, while the arguments abound, they are usually merely that -- arguments. Few proponents in debates over innovation and creation offer empirically based analysis, case stories or histories to support their propositions. Often, the phrase "promote innovation" is used without any explanation or analysis.

This article is the first of a series of articles to be published in the TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert over the next two weeks that address arguments regarding the nature, causes and consequences of innovation. Most of the arguments addressed in this series have been presented in the last month in books, reports, and speeches.

First, there is an article, which is also in this issue, about President Bush's November 6 speech advocating freedom and democracy in the Middle East. In explaining his argument, he articulated his theory that freedom and liberty lead to creativity, innovation and technological progress, which in turn, lead to social progress, wealth and prosperity.

Two articles are reviews of books that examine innovation over the broad sweep of history. First, Charles Murray wrote a book that attempts a quantification of innovation, or human accomplishment, over the last two millennia. He also conducts analysis of his statistics. Finally, he diverts into a non-empirical, polemic argument that innovation is on the decline; he offers a conservative explanation for this hypothesis.

Second, Paul Johnson wrote a book that purports to be a review of the history of art. While he looks a statues and paintings, he also uses the term art much the way the patent law uses the terms "useful arts" or "prior art". Thus, in this book, Johan Gutenberg created "art" when he devised a method for pressing ink into paper using movable metal type. The book is laced with insight about what causes, or inhibits, the creation of great art, and the invention of new technologies.

This series of articles then examines a series of recent speeches and reports from various executive branch entities that reflect the diversity of viewpoints by policy makers at these agencies. Views from the Department of Commerce (DOC), Federal Trade Commission (FTC), U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are covered. Finally, some private sector viewpoints are covered.

This series of articles covers just some of the recent books, speeches and reports that address innovation. While there are a dozen articles in the series, this series only scratches the surface of what has been written or said. The goal here is to collect and summarize various important viewpoints, and to compare and contrast the arguments on different subjects. This series expresses no opinions as to who is right, or what policies are best.

The final article attempts to identify areas in which there is considerable consensus, and those areas where opinions diverge. If there is any theme to this series, it would be that while there is widespread consensus that innovation is good, that it can lead to jobs, greater prosperity, and a higher quality of life, and that government policy can promote innovation, there are a great multiplicity of divergent viewpoints regarding what is innovation, who innovates, what motivates innovation, what are the necessary conditions for innovation, and what the government should do to promote innovation.

Each of the following stories in this series is longer than most articles in the TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert. Hence, the first ten paragraphs of each is published in an issue of the TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert. The entirety of each story is published in the TLJ web site. Hyperlinks are provided.