The True Roots of Innovation – A Response to Michael Mandel

Dear Michael,

It’s bad form to falsify someone’s argument, in the hope that doing so will make it easier to refute. I did not write that our society suffers from technological “stagnation.” I wrote that the concentration of control over our technological systems endangers our ability to introduce the right new ideas in the right places at the right times. As I made clear, I believe that open and competitive markets usually offer us the best way to do this.

What’s worse, Michael, is to fail to knock over a straw man once you’ve set it up. Let’s say I did argue merely, as you contend, that a few giant tech companies are stunting innovation. Does your counterargument – that the introduction of the iPhone and Android and apps proves me wrong – hold up?

I agree with you that Apple and Google both introduced great products in recent years. But who exactly cleared the way for them to do so? Wasn’t it America’s trustbusters? Specifically, wasn’t it those men and women in our state and federal governments who in the late 1990s won a case against Microsoft when that corporation was at the height of its powers?

Imagine, Michael, what our tech industry would look like today had we failed to hobble Microsoft 14 years ago. Google? Nothing but an old smear on Bill Gates’ Bentley. And Apple? Steve Jobs might well have spent the aughts working as a senior VP in Redmond.

I love my iPhone and my apps as much as anyone. And I hugely admire the smarts of the scientists and engineers who brought us these products. But, Michael, that’s the past now. The question we face today is who will ensure that yesterday’s successful corporations don’t kill tomorrow’s new ideas.

But as I said earlier, the argument I actually made in “Estates of Mind” is more complex than that. The issue is not merely growth but democracy and survival. The path to a more sustainable, and more fair tomorrow is not to ignore power or to apologize for power or to pretend that America’s scientists and entrepreneurs need to be directed from above. That idea is, at the very least, naïve. The path forward is to fight for liberty and democracy in our political economy, as we have for more than two centuries, and thereby ensure that our scientists and entrepreneurs are free to think whatever they will.

Barry Lynn

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Barry C. Lynn

Barry C. Lynn directs the Open Markets Program at New America and is the author of Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction.