Ideas are nice really

28th January, 2006

Dear Economist,
Governments like to promote innovation. But ever greater innovation means ever greater use of resources, disposability of goods, consumer spending and (one surmises) social envy. Is there a case for suppressing innovation?
Marion Hancock, by e-mail

Dear Marion,

There are two ways to raise purchasing power: investment or innovation. Investment means buying big machines so that each worker operates more equipment. It is hard to see how this is more environmentally friendly than innovation. It is also self-limiting: all the investment budget goes on replacing worn-out machines.

By contrast, innovative ideas consume no resources at all. They are particularly useful when there are many people on the planet, because everyone can benefit from a piece of software, a better design for the mousetrap or the theory of germs. Not everyone can benefit from my electric hand drill.

Nor do innovative products use more resources. Today’s expensive consumer products are tiny, or do not physically exist at all – for example, the 4,000 issues of The New Yorker that my wife gave me for Christmas are stored digitally.

It is true that if I was poor enough then I would have received no magazines, digital or otherwise. So perhaps you are not really in favour of suppressing innovation but of ending economic growth entirely. This has proved possible – for example, in Mao’s China or the dying days of the Soviet Union. Environmental Eden did not result.

At least an end to innovation might (you surmise) return us to the envy-free days when my great grandmother might have been your great grandfather’s scullery maid.

But I don’t wish to find out.

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