Democracy and Innovation: the Liberal Model.
Posted by democratist on March 8, 2011
March 8th 2011,
As many of our readers will be aware, Democratist is fascinated by the interrelationship between democracy, economic growth, and scientific innovation.
We have often suggested that autocratic rule in Russia (and its attendant corruption) is having a devastating (and continuing) impact on Russian industry and technology.
Recently however, we decided to look at this question from a slightly different perspective. Instead of saying what we think is wrong with the Russian government, and the impact this is having on Russian S&T, we decided to go back to basics a little and look at what actually it takes for a country to develop an advanced industrial economy, and a flexible, creative, inventive culture.
We have found a good general explanatory model of the social, political and cultural basis of innovation in Why Globalization Works (Yale, 2004) by Financial Times chief economics commentator Martin Wolf. We will call this the “liberal model.”
Wolf writes that the historical record suggests that the really key thing you need to promote an inventive culture is a market economy, backed up by the rule of law.
As Wolf states;
“The liberating technological changes of Promethean [i.e. technological] growth did not emerge from nowhere. They reflected a new way of organizing the economic activities of society as a whole – a sophisticated market economy with secure protection of property rights. Unshackled from the constraints of tradition and driven by hope of gain, economic actors were tied by competition to the wheel of what the great Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction.” To achieve success in their battles with their competitors, businesses have been driven to exploit the ever burgeoning power of technology and science. Within a market economy the hope of gain and fear of loss drive inventors and innovators to apply new ways of doing things, or to produce new products.”
But how does democracy fit in here?
First of all, Wolf explains that democracy has the same cultural roots as the market economy: historically, protestant culture put an intrinsic value on all individuals, and moulded them to accept personal responsibility for their actions. Moreover, this was a key factor in promoting the initial development of liberal political and economic institutions in countries such as Great Britain (although evidently the post-1945 record demonstrates that their implementation is by no means restricted to protestant countries).
As Wolf explains;
“The bedrock of a liberal society is, as John Locke argued in the seventeenth century, the right of all individuals to own and use property freely, subject to well-defined, law-governed constraints. A liberal society is therefore a commercial society. But freedom to seek one’s own way in life, outside the boundaries of caste, class, community or, more recently of gender, cannot be restricted to economic activities alone. The culture of a liberal society is, for this reason, inimical to established hierarchies of power or opinion. It is no accident that commercial societies came to consider freedom of thought and expression of great value. A merchant is a practical man who must make rational judgements about the world, not least the risks he runs…The combination of practicality, rationalism and freedom of inquiry became the basis for the West’s greatest achievement – modern science. It is again, no accident that science reached its greatest flowering in a commercial West.”
If individuals are to be free, they need protection both by – and from – the state. For individuals to enter into long-term investments (which promote strong growth and innovation) they need to be able to trust each other, and the state. The condition for such confidence is normally expressed as the rule of law. This is a key driver of both economic growth and scientific innovation.
Historically, states which were both strong and beneficent emerged from a combination of forces including regulatory competition and internal representation; Regulatory competition developed from the multiplicity of competing states in medieval Europe. But;
“Regulatory reform is not enough. An absolute monarch may still seize the wealth of his subjects or default on his debts when his dynasty is threatened. Secure freedom requires governments interested in the long-term health of their countries. The best solution is a constitutional democracy with representative parliaments – government accountable to the governed. Such a democracy must be constitutional, that is law governed. It is not enough to move from the tyranny of one person to the majority.”
So democratic (or at least meaningfully representative) government an institutional prerequisite, according to the liberal model. This form of government will be accountable and therefore have a high degree of interest in the long-term health of the country it governs. The rule of law is another sine qua non of long-term investment, the development of a market economy, and a creative competitive culture that leads to technological innovation and the emergence of an advanced industrial base and economic growth.