wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Joel Mokyr

The Lever of Riches

Although technological progress is by definition a net improvement to the economy, it is almost always the case that there are some groups whose welfare is reduced because of it, or who at least believe so ex ante. Technological change shocks the labor market, alters the physical environment, makes existing human and physical capital obsolete, and unambiguously reduces the producer's surplus of the innovator's competitors. In a repeated game, the gainers might have tried to compensate the losers. By its very nature, however, technological change is a nonrepeated game, since an invention is only invented once. Once an invention is made, an inventor often needs protection from those who stand to benefit from the suppression of the invention. The dilemma is sharpened by the fact that the benefits are usually heavily diffused, while the costs are concentrated. Thus the losers will find it easier to organize, and are quite likely to try to squelch technological progress altogether. Resistance to technological change occurred in many periods and places but seems to have been largely neglected by most historians, though Morison (1966, p. 10) views it as 'the single greatest matter of importance and interest in this whole process [of invention].'

Some examples: as early as 1397, tailors in Cologne were forbidden to use machines that pressed pinheads. In 1561, the city council of Nuremberg, undoubtedly influenced by the guild of red-metal turners, launched an attack on a local coppersmith by the name of Hans Spaichi who had invented an improved slide rest lathe. The council first rewarded Spaichi for his invention, then began to harass him and made him promise not to sell his lathe outside his own craft, then offered to buy it from him if he suppressed it, and finally threatened to imprison anyone who sold the lathe (Klemm, 1964, p.153). The ribbon loom was invented in Danzig in 1579, but its inventor was reportedly secretly drowned by orders of the city council. Twenty-five years later the ribbon loom was reinvented in the Netherlands—though resistance there, too, was stiff—and thus became known as the Dutch loom. A century and a half later, John Kay, the inventor of the flying shuttle, was harassed by weavers. He eventually settled in France, where he refused to show his shuttle to weavers out of fear. But the prolonged opposition of vested interests against the flying shuttle in Britain was ineffectual. Resistance to new technology was traditionally strongest in the textile trade, but appeared in less expected places as well. In 1299, an edict was issued in Florence forbidding bankers to use Arabic numerals (Stern, 1937, p. 48). In the fifteenth century, the scribes guild of Paris succeeded in delaying the introduction of printing into Paris by 20 years. In the sixteenth century, the great printers revolt in France was triggered by labor-saving innovations in the presses.

These negative reactions to technological progress can only be understood as an attempt by those with an investment in certain techniques to prevent the decline in the value of their skills. Economies in which the institutional setup protects the inventor from such threats, or in which distributional coalitions, which protect the selfish interests of small groups at the expense of the large majority, are comparatively weak will have a far better chance for technological success. Inventors or manufacturers who perceive that innovating is a thankless and possibly dangerous activity will lose interest, and technological change will peter out.