A lot has been discussed on this blog recently with regards to censorship, most of the discourse so far have revolved around the justice and standards of censorship. I want to take a different but related direction, and discuss yet another myth propagated by the democracy/freedom advocates – the notion that “free” societies are always more innovative than their “non-free” counterparts. To what extent is this actually true? More fundamentally, where does innovation come from, what actually stimulates innovation? How does innovation come about? I won’t pretend that I have all the answers, but here are some of my observations so far.
Unsurprisingly, classic mainstream thought in the West suggests that “free-thinking” people and societies will be more innovative, and this is seen as a results-based justification for all types of freedom, political or otherwise. While this makes intuitive sense and is emotionally satisfying for mainstream western thinkers, history has demonstrated otherwise at least a few times.
The clearest example of this occurred in World War II. The most innovative power (in terms of technological and organizational prowess) during that time was not democratic America or UK, but Nazi Germany. They were researching, developing, and/or implementing military concepts that were decades ahead of their time – be it combined arms mechanized warfare, modular force structure, precision-guided attack, long-range standoff munitions, stealth aviation, guided air defense systems, satellite launch capabilities, the list goes on. These concepts and capabilities – directly copied from the Nazi war-machine – form the backbone of the world’s modern armed forces today. The Wehrmacht was – second to none – the most technologically (& arguably organizationally) sophisticated armed forces during the war (not to mention the most fashionably dressed as well, thanks to Hugo Boss himself), and Germany certainly did not lose the war due to a lack of innovation.
The other notable example is the space race between the US and USSR. The Americans claim the first human moon landing as the ultimate achievement that led to its so-called “victory” in the space race. While the innovative American propaganda defined “first to the moon” as the the “moment of victory”, the USSR was in fact the leading pioneer in practically EVERY other notable achievement in human space exploration, be it the first manned space station, the first probes to Venus and Mars, the first space docking, etc.
We can also look back to the US during its industrial revolution in the late 1800s/early 1900s. American politics during that period can be characterized by one word – exclusion; exclusion of African Americans and practically all other minorities, exclusion of women, and exclusion of the working class. The American political economy was dominated by a merchant oligarchy that formed monopolies, suppressed unions, and trampled on workers’ rights. Yet that did not stop the US from becoming the most vibrant emerging market and innovator of its day, especially in the field of industrial and operations engineering.
What we see from these examples is that innovation has resulted from a combination of resource devotion and urgent necessity. In both these cases, the lack of political participation did NOT hinder the ability to study and apply the principles of mathematics, chemistry, physics, electrical engineering, or any other sphere of natural science. The fact that Russian scientists and engineers were so highly sought after following the end of the Cold War is a testament to this reality.
A more recent and more familiar example is America’s utilization of the internet as an engine for economic growth. Many would characterize this recent phenomenon as the manifestation of freedom’s triumph. And indeed there is some degree of validity to that, for without the support of a vibrant and mature venture capital market, I doubt many of today’s great American internet companies would have arisen. So in that sense, some degree of ECONOMIC freedom is necessary to allow society to take advantage of new scientific and engineering accomplishments. I would say the ability to utilize existing scientific accomplishments for economic development is what gave America an edge over the former USSR. On the other hand, the existence of the internet (as we know it today) would not have been possible, had the US government not funded its development through organizations such as DARPA and NSF. Once again, we go back to the two aforementioned ingredients of innovation – resources (both intellectual and capital) and necessity/motivation (be it the promise of security and/or wealth).
While we’re on the topic of government funding, I also want to address the role of the state in innovation. A key element of innovation consists of making new discoveries on the scientific frontier. Those who buy into liberal economic dogma would suggest that the highly competitive private sector always performs more efficiently in every sphere of life, be it science, healthcare, or defense. But I subscribe to Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s opposing perspective (see YouTube link below for a far more articulate explanation than mine). Science is a standardized process used to provide explanations of and collective knowledge about currently UNKNOWN phenomenon. When we stand on the edge between the known and unknown, pushing that frontier is often expensive, dangerous, large scale, and it ALWAYS provides UNKNOWN economic risks and returns. Any form of profit seeking organization has to be able to valuate the risks and rewards of a venture in its cost-benefit based decision making process, but science is by definition a venture that provides UNKNOWN risks and returns. Therefore, the private sector, as its currently organized, has never and will never push the frontiers of scientific discovery. What they do best is finding ways of commercializing and utilizing EXISTING, KNOWN knowledge; whereas non-profit-seeking organizations such as the state are the only type of institutions that could effectively provide NEW, PREVIOUSLY UNKNOWN scientific knowledge on the frontiers of discovery.
So far, we’ve identified the key elements that drive scientific and technological innovation – resources and motivation. We’ve also identified the conditions under which such innovation can thrive and benefit society – healthy, non-profit-seeking support for scientific exploration and discovery, along with a vibrant venture capital market that can utilize existing knowledge. There is little empirical or theoretical evidence that suggests political freedom is a genuine and necessary prerequisite for scientific innovation or development of a knowledge-based economy.