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Misesian vs. Marxian vs. IP Views of Innovation

BK Marcus drew my attention to this passage from Mises’s Theory and History that illustrates that Mises really understood the subject of innovation, and that his view contrasts with both the Marxian view (impersonal forces) and the IP view (innovation is a result of ex nihilo creations by isolated idea owners). As usual, the Misesian perspective offers a middle way:

While the group-mind school tried to eliminate the individual by ascribing activity to the mythical Volksgeist, the Marxians were intent on the one hand upon depreciating the individual’s contribution and on the other hand upon crediting innovations to common men. Thus Marx observed that a critical history of technology would demonstrate that none of the eighteenth century’s inventions was the achievement of a single individual. What does this prove? Nobody denies that technological progress is a gradual process, a chain of successive steps performed by long lines of men each of whom adds something to the accomplishments of his predecessors. The history of every technological contrivance, when completely told, leads back to the most primitive inventions made by cave dwellers in the earliest ages of mankind. To choose any later starting point is an arbitrary restriction of the whole tale. One may begin a history of wireless telegraphy with Maxwell and Hertz, but one may as well go back to the first experiments with electricity or to any previous technological feats that had necessarily to precede the construction of a radio network. All this does not in the least affect the truth that each step forward was made by an individual and not by some mythical impersonal agency. It does not detract from the contributions of Maxwell, Hertz, and Marconi to admit that they could be made only because others had previously made other contributions.

(I should add that this once again reinforces my long-held opinion that Theory and History by Mises contains more truth in one book than most of the rest of the university library.)


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