Thoughts on Tabarrok’s Launching the Innovation Revolution

After reviews by Bryan Caplan and our own Stephan Kinsella got my attention, I read Alexander Tabarrok’s new “TED” e-book, Launching the Innovation Revolution.

I went in with an open mind, ready to applaud practical suggestions for incrementally increasing freedom in the area of intellectual property, even if Tabarrok didn’t endorse abolishing the entire patent system as I do. But I was still disappointed.

To Tabarrok’s credit, he does start by showing why patents aren’t necessary to have innovation (at least, he says, in most fields), and he does argue for shorter patent terms (for some things) and less patent protection (for some things). That’s all fine, as far as it goes.

Unfortunately, too much of the book is devoted to promoting new central-planning schemes that Tabarrok thinks would work better than current government programs. Kinsella discusses some of them in an update to his original review; I’ll discuss a couple more.

Perhaps my least favorite was a suggestion that the federal government subsidize higher education only in areas where there will supposedly be “spillovers” of benefits to the economy as a whole, such as engineering and biochemistry. Education in less economically valuable fields, such as sociology, would not be subsidized. The problem is, Tabarrok doesn’t mention what I’m sure he knows: we’ll get all the innovative engineers and scientists we need if we stop subsidizing higher education entirely and let the market decide what areas of study are valuable. On the other hand, if government planners enter the business of deciding which subjects are economically important, as Tabarrok wishes, what reason is there to think that they’ll choose the “right” subjects and that the subjects won’t be determined (and altered over time) according to political considerations? Apparently Tabarrok thinks you just need to have the right planners in charge — but anyone familiar with libertarian thought or public choice, as Tabarrok is, should know that any scheme that depends on the wisdom or benevolence of government planners is bound to fail.

Elsewhere, Tabarrok endorses the idea of governments buying mass quantities of vaccines from pharmaceutical companies, and he says it’s “shameful” that the U.S. has not done this in some instances where other countries’ governments have done so. Here again, it’s just assumed that the government will choose well — and that the program won’t turn into a corporate welfare scam that ultimately will have little to do with what’s actually good for Americans’ health. And this is to say nothing of the impropriety of forcing people to pay for things they wouldn’t voluntarily pay for.

Tabarrok says that many federal regulations are “good,” it’s just that taken together, they make the cost of doing business too high and stifle innovation. Which he considers to be good and why is never clear.

At least Tabarrok does get in a dig at the warfare state — not because it slaughters thousands of innocent people but because it diverts resources away from domestic innovation. (He’s not against all military spending, though. For example, he laments that we give “only” $3 billion a year to DARPA for R&D — never mind that the money it gets now is spent on some very disturbing projects.)

Maybe this book will help some people recognize that patents aren’t as essential to innovation as some claim, or get some people to favor increased immigration (another area in which it is good). I’m concerned, however, that it’s the statist ideas, if any, that we’ll see implemented.

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