The transfer of ideas

Although the view that, once discovered, ideas can be imitated for free by anybody is pervasive, it is far from the truth. While it may occasionally be the case that an idea is acquired at no cost – ideas are generally difficult to communicate, and the resources for doing so are limited. It is rather ironic that a group of economists, who are also college professors and earn a substantial living teaching old ideas because their transmission is neither simple nor cheap, would argue otherwise in their scientific work. Most of the times imitation requires effort and, what is more important, imitation requires purchasing either some products or some teaching services from the original innovator, meaning that most spillovers are priced.


The widespread belief in the free availability of ideas is sometime due to poor inspection of data and historical documents but, most often, it is the consequence of a common cognitive bias. Every day we are surrounded, one would say: bombarded, by references to and the effects of so many “ideas” that we often feel as if we knew them all or could know and use them all if we only wanted to. But that is just a pious illusion, as we should have all learned when our seven year old child asked for an explanation of how the chip in our wondrous cellular phone really worked. Most ideas, we may have heard about them, we may even know where to find a manual or an expert that could teach us about them, but we are very far from being able to put them into productive economic usage. Take, for example, the famous idea E = mc2. This is commonly known, in the sense that many people can quote the formula. But how many people actually know what it means, or can put it to any productive use? The two of us, for starters, have no idea of what to do with it.

Most productive ideas, these days especially but certainly since at least the times of the Renaissance, are much more complicated and less self-evident than the wheelbarrow or the wheeled suitcase. One does not learn the formula for a new drug by staring at the pill, and while the formula may be divined in a chemical lab, the procedure for producing it may not be. Billions of people have drunk billions of gallons of Coca Cola, but the famous formula is still a well kept secret. Even the steam engine invented by this book’s designated scoundrel, James Watt, was not easy to copy: twenty or thirty years after it had been introduced purchasers still needed the expertise of Mr. Watt and his assistants to erect and operate it. More to the point, almost forty years after Honda and Toyota entered the U.S. market, GM and Ford, not to speak of Fiat and Rover, are still incapable of producing cars with the same quality, reliability, and fuel consumption.

Boldrin & Levine; Defenses of Intellectual Monopoly, Chapter 7 from “Against Intellectual Monopoly”

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