I was pondering for a presentation on Thursday why it is that inequality between countries has grown so markedly over the last 100 years. There are many reasons why the richer countries have grown, but it is harder to explain why poor countries do not catch up as quickly as they did during the previous 2,000 years.
A candidate explanation of why poor countries catch up more slowly now is that rich countries have taken steps which slow down the transfer of technology. By tightening intellectual property rules and expanding those restrictions to an increasing proportion of economic value, rich countries are, in effect, yanking up the ladder behind them.
The great irony is that the U.S. economy in its early years was built in large part on a lax attitude toward intellectual-property rights and enforcement. As the historian Doron Ben-Atar shows in his book “Trade Secrets,” the Founders believed that a strict attitude toward patents and copyright would limit domestic innovation and make it harder for the U.S. to expand its industrial base. American law did not protect the rights of foreign inventors or writers, and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, in his famous “Report on Manufactures,” of 1791, actively advocated the theft of technology and the luring of skilled workers from foreign countries. Among the beneficiaries of this was the American textile industry, which flourished thanks to pirated technology. Free-trade agreements that export our own restrictive I.P. laws may make the world safe for Pfizer, Microsoft, and Disney, but they don’t deserve the name free trade.
Does this matter? I think it probably does. David Houle wrote last month about the growing economic importance of information in the value of economic production:
In 1975, at the very beginning of the Information Age, 16.8% of the market capitalization of the S&P 500 was from intangible assets. By 1995, that number had grown to 68.4%, and in 2005 it was up to 79.7%, where I imagine it will level off in the years ahead. In the historically short time of thirty years there has been a fundamental shift in the concept of value, not unlike the transition from the land values of the Agricultural Age to the production values of the Industrial Age.
The twentieth century has seen a new enclosure of the commons – robber barons have built fences around the key economic assets of the community, and they have got rich charging people for using them. In the past, when mankind learned how to get more food from the land (e.g. learning about irrigation, crop rotation or seed soaking) these ideas were not protected by patents. When we learned how to improve our health (e.g by improving access to clean water, or using antibiotics) these ideas were not protected by patents. When we learned how to organize factories, or build roads, or design windmills – all these ideas could be transplanted and adapted by poorer countries, so that they too could benefit from them.
Now at the start of the 21st Century, many of the key technologies that drive economic value are locked away by patents and intellectual property rights – agricultural technologies, business software, vaccines to prevent disease. As a result, the poor can no longer simply adopt these techniques and adapt them for themselves.
The cruel irony is that it would do us no harm to allow others to share in the benefits of our innovations. We worry about intellectual property rights because we want to protect our ability to recover the costs of innovation from the rich: the poor (who cannot afford to reward us for our cleverness anyway) are just innocent bystanders.