America’s lead on innovation and the role of the public sector

A nice post here by British economist Paul Ormerod which describes how the US is leading the world in the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI). In the last paragraph, he discusses how the development of key technologies that are perceived to be in the national interest there are initially funded and developed by the public sector, with an eye to their subsequent practical application by the private sector.

The idea that the world’s most powerful nation and largest economy owes many of its strengths to public sector-led innovation is an important one. In her eye-opening book, The Entrepreneurial State, Professor Mariana Mazzucato shows as a key example how many of the technologies that make up the smart phone were initially developed by the US government, and only later combined into desirable consumer products by private companies such as Apple and Samsung. From the internet and GPS, to the touchscreen and voice activation, government institutions led the way, mostly to try to maintain the country’s military superiority.

Mazzucato argues that we should acknowledge the key role of the public sector in taking on certain financial risks which the private sector will not bear, and support these kinds of innovation policies. Of course, there will be failures as well as successes, but this should not be a reason for abandoning state intervention. The private sector can fail as much as the public, sometimes on an enormous scale, ‘wasting’ resources in the process. As long as an experimental approach and a willingness to learn are adopted, there is the potential for a greatly positive public-private co-evolution which can help to drive economic progress.

The public-private divide under capitalism should be seen as something of a myth: the two are symbiotic and support each other in successful economies more extensively than is often believed. It is misleading and potentially damaging to call public provision or even public-private partnerships ‘socialist’. The truth is that the development of capitalism from its inception to today’s increasingly complex economy remains dependent on the state as much as the private sector.

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One thought on “America’s lead on innovation and the role of the public sector

  1. A former libertarian, through my own restive search for truth (or improved approximations of it) but also thanks to intelligent and enlightening, honest and balanced sources like your excellent blog, I have been able to open my mind by and by to the ideas so well expressed in this post of yours.

    I need to read Mazzucato; last time I saw a video of hers, some years ago, I was ideologically incapable of appreciating the points that you are explaining in the present post.

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