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Prove that would have been invented without patents!

In an email someone mentioned to me a particular key invention from a few decades ago, which was responsible for a number of other high-tech innovations that we now enjoy, and asked me to “show us how any of that could have happened if there were no patents.” My response is below.

Why is the burden on me to show how it could have happened without patents? The question is itself question-begging, as it assumes the patents played a causal role, which must be either explained away or for which a substitute incentive effect must be found.

I’d say that almost any invention that comes will come eventually–maybe even sooner, absent the patent system, absent the state (see Yet Another Study Finds Patents Do Not Encourage Innovation). In my experience, this view is almost universal among inventors and engineers. We would have had transistors by now without Shockley, Planck, and Schrödinger; we would have had light bulbs without Edison; and one-click purchasing on web sites without Jeff Bezos. Maybe a bit later, but eventually. And maybe even earlier–patents slow things down too, after all.

And we cannot forget that a huge factor in innovation is wealth. Wealth is needed to provide spare time and resources to engage in research and development. And wealth is no doubt hampered severely in a society that has a state, which any patent society must. Without a state there would be no patents, but a far richer world, and more innovation because of that factor alone.

Finally–so what if we wouldn’t have had invention X, Y, Z, as early, or even ever, without a patent system? After all, a patent system undeniably has costs in terms of both rights and money. How can it be shown that having invention X is worth the violation of rights incurred as a result of the patent system necessary to generate X? Utilitarianism is a bankrupt doctrine, after all. And even if you approach it from a utilitarian, wealth-maximization angle: how can it be shown–who has shown?–that the cost of the patent system that generates X is less than the value of X?

[Mises cross-post; Against IM cross-post]

{ 6 comments… add one }
  • PhantomX July 19, 2009, 4:22 pm

    A patent is not required for an invention to be introduced, absorbed into the usefulness of society and exploited by individuals looking to sell a good idea without permissions from the owner (s}: your friend,
    Trillion Air X. . .

  • Alpheus February 23, 2011, 3:31 pm

    I was just thinking about the Tennessee Valley Authority, and their efforts to make sure farmers got electricity. In public school, I distinctly remember learning that farmers wouldn’t have gotten electricity, because no electric company would have paid for electric cables to sparsely-populated farming communities.

    Perhaps the latter claim is right: electric companies probably would not have paid to put lines out to farming communities. But is the former premise true? I doubt it: electricity is a fine thing to have, and someone (perhaps even some farmers!) would have figured out how to get it.

    Perhaps farmers would have just used private generators, and shipped in coal or gas–or even used distilled alcohol, brewed from their own wheat crops. Perhaps a given farming community would have just set up their own local electric plant. Or, perhaps, when all things were considered, the farmers would have chipped in, and paid extra for the power lines, so they could have electricity, after all–or perhaps some other form of energy would have been more desirable for farmers to use!

    In any case, by saying “The farmers wouldn’t have gotten electricity”, and then subsidized electricity to farmers, politicians and bureaucrats have cut short the process that would have given the farmers the energy they needed, in the most efficient way possible.

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