Fraser Forum

Innovation, invention and the free market in the creative arts (Post 2)

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There are many competing theories about how, why and at what time certain inventions and innovations occur. Many, like the discovery of penicillin or Velcro, are made by accident. Another obvious explanation for invention is demand, or need: we invent and innovate in order to solve problems. If we want to move a large rock, we invent varieties of levers or winches to get the job done. If we wish to communicate over great distances, we invent the telegraph or the telephone. If we need to light our houses without the smell and smoke of kerosene, we invent the electric light bulb.

In the world of artistic creation, similar explanations can be found: the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg (depicted above) revolutionized the ease and speed of book production. As Joel Mokyr points out, “in the 50 years following the invention more books were produced than in the preceding thousand years” (The Lever of Riches, p. 49). Much later, the development of pulp-based commercial paper was driven by a need to find lower cost stationery, but also filled a need to find surfaces that are smoother to write and print on. Similarly, the invention of digital recording technology, together with software like Apple’s GarageBand, dramatically reduced the cost of recording music and has generated exponentially more recorded music than previous decades.

What are the conditions most favourable to innovation? There are competing theories for why innovation occurs at certain times and certain places, but some institutional arrangements are strongly correlated with high levels of invention and innovation: economic prosperity; decentralized political and economic structures; high levels of information sharing; peace and political stability; robust and well-respected property rights. Prosperity allows for the investment in scientists, craftsmen and inventors who can commit themselves to innovating.

Decentralization allows for multiple on-going experiments under a variety of different conditions. Information-sharing allows for groups of inventors to modify existing technologies in stages, a much easier task than creating something entirely new ex nihilo. Peace and stability mean that resources are not exhausted in war and that potentially productive populations are not thrown into flight or destitution. Well-respected property rights allow people to develop workshops, accumulate tools, and, ultimately, if their inventions and innovations prove successful, to benefit through the production and sale of their new inventions.

Each of the above conditions is characteristic of free market economies, not centralized political systems. Contrary to the oft-repeated claims of the arts community, it is a flexible, voluntary, pluralist society with free markets that best produces the conditions for innovation and invention in artistic production. The centralized approach (neither pluralistic and voluntary, nor market-driven) is to sponsor the arts through government funding.

Can governments promote the arts? Sure, they do all the time. But just like the government track record in picking winners in industry, government is also notoriously bad at promoting the arts that people wish to enjoy.

In future posts I will explore this controversial claim, and will argue that the free market is the best way to ensure that high quality arts find appreciative audiences.


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