Marianna Mazzucato’s 2013 The Entrepreneurial State is the most influential book on innovation. Although Mazzucato’s arguments in the book and beyond are many and varied – for example, I’m particularly sympathetic to her scepticism of the uncritical financial support for small businesses – the arguments gaining the most traction are the least convincing and potentially most damaging. In short, Mazzucato’s thesis is that the state has been the key driver of “innovation” and should therefore take a more active role than they currently do. Central to this, is the policy suggestion that government agencies that fund this innovation should take a cut of the profits from the inventions. Two writers have convincingly unpicked this – the Adam Smith Institute's Tim Worstall and Nesta’s Stian Westlake.
First, on the point about states driving innovation, Worstall cites William Baumol, who makes the crucial distinction between innovation and inventions. In reference to Mazzucato’s observation that the key technologies that went into making the iPhone were state funded Worstall explains: “Baumol's point is that the private sector could have come up with these technologies, even though it was the state that did. But only the private, or market, sector could have come up with the iPhone.”
To put it another way, the iPhone is more than the sum of its parts. In an excellent article (worth reading in full), Westlake cites the work of Jonathan Haskel, which “suggests that for every £1 that British businesses spend on R&D, they spend £8 on other intangible investments of the sort that Apple used to make the iPod a success: design, new business models, marketing and software development.”
But perhaps Mazzucato’s biggest mistake is one of policy. As Westlake explains elsewhere, in The Entrepreneurial State Mazzucato suggests that “the state should find ways to share directly in the profits of companies that benefit from government innovation spending. A repayment system needs to 'reward [the government for] the wins when they happen so that the returns can cover the losses from the inevitable failures.'”
Westlake outline three convincing reasons why this wouldn’t work: “it would be nightmarish to administer; it imposes costs on exactly the wrong businesses, creating both a presentational and a practical problem; and it’s worse than an already existing option – funding innovation from general taxation.” Westlake's last point cuts to heart of the problem. As Worstall has pointed out in a response to Mazzucato’s response to his criticism of her work:
That governments sometimes produce public goods should not be a surprise. That’s what governments are for in fact. To provide collectively those things that cannot be provided through voluntary cooperation. To then complain that government doesn’t get extra rewards for doing the very thing we institute it for seems most odd. That’s why we pay our taxes in the first place: in order to get those public goods. Why should there then be some extra appropriation when all government is doing is what we asked it to and paid for it to do in the first place?
Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.