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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: Forceps

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


A public good has two characteristics.  It is non-rivalrous and, once provided, exclusion by others is difficult.  Non-rivalrous means that the use of the good by one does not stop use by others.  An idea, knowledge, is a public good.  It is non-rivalrous; my use of algebra or a song does not affect yours.  Exclusion is difficult; once algebra or a song is know, it is difficult to stop people from using it. 

We want people to introduce new ideas into the market; they cause the economy to grow.  They will not be provided unless those who introduce them can profit.  Inventors protect their ideas through secrecy and governments protect them with copyrights, trademarks, and patents.  We also want the ideas to spread to others so they can be built upon and expanded by others.  Achieving a balance between encouraging new ideas and granting the innovators monopoly use rights is an important yet tricky function of government.

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner provide a gruesome example of knowledge that was protected too long by secrecy in "Super Freakonomics."  The relevance of the example and its application to lawmakers in determining how long to protect new ideas should be clear.
There is another powerful, if bittersweet, example from the realm of childbirth: the forceps.  It used to be that when a baby presented itself feet- or derriere-first, there was a good chance it would get stuck in the uterus, endangering both mother and child.  The forceps, a simple set of metal tongs, allowed a doctor or midwife to turn a baby inside the uterus and adroitly pluck it out, headfirst, like a roast suckling pig  from the oven.

As effective as it was, the forceps did not save as many lives as it should have.  It is thought to have been invented in the early seventeenth century by a London obstetrician named Peter Chamberlen.  The forceps worked so well that Chamberlen kept it a secret, sharing it only with sons and grandsons who continued in the family business.  It wasn't until the mid-eighteenth century that the forceps passed into general use.

What was the cost of this technological hoarding?  According to the surgeon and author Atul Gawande, "it has to have been millions of lives lost."

1 comment:

  1. But what do you suggest? That every inventor be tortured to own up? And how does one find out that he/she invented anything to be elicited in the first place? And what if Chamberlen had shared the fate of semmelweis? Maybe he had other good reasons to keep his secret and it only came out into the open when the world was prepared to accept it? Don't we remember Galilei?