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Does War Promote Innovation?

June 13, 2014 in Economics

By Peter G. Klein


The belief that war, and government spending more generally, fosters economic growth by spurring innovation is one of those fallacies that won’t die, no matter how often it is challenged and refuted. Today’s New York Times gives us the usual spiel:

Fundamental innovations such as nuclear power, the computer and the modern aircraft were all pushed along by an American government eager to defeat the Axis powers or, later, to win the Cold War. The Internet was initially designed to help this country withstand a nuclear exchange, and Silicon Valley had its origins with military contracting, not today’s entrepreneurial social media start-ups. The Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite spurred American interest in science and technology, to the benefit of later economic growth.

As I noted in a recent Mises View, this sort of argument is devoid of any economic analysis. First, it confuses technological innovation (impressive to engineers) and economic innovation (valuable to consumers). Second, it confuses gross and net benefit — of course, when government does X, we get more X, but is that more valuable than the Y we could otherwise have had? (Frédéric Bastiat, call your office.) Third, it confuses treatment and selection effects of government spending — government typically funds scientific projects that would have been undertaken anyway, such that a main benefit of government spending on science and technology is to increase the wages of science and technology workers. Fourth, as writers like Terence Kealey have pointed out, if you look carefully at the details of the sorts of programs lauded by the Times, you find they were grossly inefficient, ineffective, and potentially harmful.

I addressed these claims in more detail in Free Market article from last year (and also in this talk, starting around 1:37). The Times writer’s claims are simply ex cathedra pronouncements, not arguments backed by evidence.

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