On Ideas, Culture and Innovation: An Interview with Ross Emmett

June 15, 2012
Posted by Joe Gorra

Photo provided by BeckyJohns7 @ Flickr

How might we think about the conditions, culture, ideas and possibilities of innovation? How might our view of human persons and their culture shape the horizons for innovation, which contribute value to others? These questions and other topics are pursued in this interview with Ross Emmett.

There is great need today to articulate a substantive and coherent theology and philosophy of innovation that is attentive to multidisciplinary considerations. Perhaps this interview might help to prod further work in this area.

Prof. Ross B. Emmett (IMBA, Ph.D.), is a professor in James Madison College at Michigan State University and co-director of the College’s Michigan Center for Innovation & Economic Prosperity. His teaching deals with the central question of comparative economic governance: what is the relationship between basic economic institutions and their legal, cultural, political and moral contexts?

Here are some excerpts from our interview:

You have a helpful web series of short videos on “The Constitution of Innovation” (with handsome allusions to Hayak’s notable work, The Constitution of Liberty). Let’s begin by considering what is innovation, and what is an innovative society? Why does this matter to human flourishing?

So much of our current discussion of innovation is focused on policy. My own thinking about innovation is focused instead on the features of a society that enable people to initiate and follow through on innovation. I use the word “constitution” to refer to these features, in much the same way Hayek does. In both our cases, we harken back to Tocqueville’s “constitutional” analysis of democracy in America.

What’s your basic take-away on what is innovation?

My working definition of innovation is “people having ideas about new ways to use things to create value for others.” Rather than talk about land, labor and capital, I talk about people, ideas, and things. This also enables me to emphasize the point that innovation is human action, not the product of some impersonal process or system. And finally, if you don’t create value for others, your idea just isn’t successful (most ideas about new ways to use things fail, of course), or you’re just tinkering for your own benefit (inventing, perhaps, but not innovating).

Why does innovation matter for human flourishing?

The Acton Institute often speaks of promoting a free and virtuous society, the end of which is human flourishing. Innovation is the means by which the potential for human flourishing is expanded in a free society. I say “potential” because almost every innovation could be used in a way that diminishes human flourishing. The problem is that we don’t know in advance which innovations will do harm. You won’t believe how many innovations that we herald today as central to improving our lives that were condemned by one group or another at the time they appeared as harmful in some way. When we allow elites to restrict our access to innovations, human flourishing is diminished.

One of the main themes in your scholarship is the role of ideas in economic history. From what I know of your work, you don’t strike me as some sort of quasi ‘Hegalian’ who reduces cultural change to just ideas or worldviews. History and cultural change – even the ‘history of ideas’ – are richer and fuller than that, right?

Ideas don’t act. Humans do. We are the change agents in history. But ideas matter in two ways. First, change occurs as people have new ideas about how to use the resources we have to provide value for themselves and others, and then go out and put them into action. Of course, those ideas don’t appear from nowhere; they emerge out of our existing contexts. Like other economists, I’ve been quite interested in the role of institutions in shaping incentives, even for entrepreneurial action. So after ideas, I emphasize the role of institutions in economic change.

How do beliefs affect cultural change?

As the economic historian Joel Mokyr has said, change depends a lot upon what people believe. I often ask my classes this question: do you believe that your actions can change the future in a positive way? If one cannot answer that question positively, why would one bother trying to innovate? So our ideas about how ideas matter (got that?), matter as well.

And the role of institutions?

One of my arguments is that our institutions are embodiments of our culture’s answer to questions such as that one. The institutions that limit government, free markets, and facilitate a rich associational life encourage the kind of changes that enable human flourishing. (If our “flourishing” can’t be improved, then different institutions will emerge; or if only certain groups are allowed to flourish, then a different set of institutions will emerge, etc.) You can understand why I see a strong connection between ideas and institutions.

Given what you say about flourishing, is economics only about use of resources?

Economics has focused on resources, institutions and the like in analyzing change because economics is our primary means of explaining human exchange and trade. And humans have, always and everywhere, traded with each other. But humans have also, always and everywhere, talked with each other. One of the reasons why economics has had a hard time incorporating “ideas” into its explanations of change is because economics has a hard time incorporating talk and discussion into its theories.

How so?

Put bluntly, humans cooperate together both by trade and by talk. A free society, characterized by the institutions identified a moment ago, is one that enables both trade and talk.

Economics (whether as an area of knowledge and practice), and economic institutions, are often viewed in isolation from other areas of knowledge and relevant institutions. How do you see economic institutions functioning in a broader ecology of legal, cultural, political and moral contexts?

We have become accustomed to thinking about society as bi-polar: either markets do everything, or politics does everything. I try, as do many others, to help us realize that family, civil society, and the common law are integral parts of the institutional structure supporting markets and responsible freedom. In my own work, you see then when I begin talking about “the constitution of innovation.” To understand innovation, we have to function in a broader context than just economic policy.

To read the full text of this interview, please click here.