Source: London School of Economics, Jul 2016
As Sir Henry Sumner Maine suggests, Britain long remained an oligarchic society that was convinced that merit was causally related to inherited social class. The United States arguably was able to assume economic leadership in part because institutions such as its educational and political systems offered inducements to all classes of society to contribute to the growth process, and allocated rewards that were commensurate with an individual’s productivity rather than his social provenance.
In the period before 1820 college attendees in both countries predominantly belonged to elite families. However, after 1820 the share of elites shrinks noticeably in the United States, and the vast majority of graduates come from nonelite backgrounds, whereas the pattern in Britain remains for the most part unchanged. The United States had set in place policies that facilitated human capital acquisition among the working class and led to social mobility through educational institutions, such as the Land Grant Act that subsidized universities with a pragmatic orientation.
there is a marked increase in the propensity to patent after 1851. This period stands out because in 1852 the British patent laws were reformed in the direction of the American system in ways that increased access to patent institutions, and strengthened the security of property rights in patents (Khan 2005).
the kind of knowledge and ideas that produced significant technological contributions during British industrialization seem to have been rather general and available to all creative individuals, regardless of their scientific training.
More generally, the experience of the First Industrial Nation indicates that creativity that enhances economic efficiency is somewhat different from additions to the most advanced technical discoveries. The sort of creativity that led to spurts in economic and social progress comprised insights that were motivated by perceived need and by institutional incentives, and could be achieved by drawing on practical abilities or informal education and skills. Elites and allegedly “upper-tail knowledge” were neither necessary nor sufficient for technological productivity and economic progress.
In the twenty-first century, specialized human capital and scientific knowledge undoubtedly enhance and precipitate economic growth in the developed economies.
However, for developing countries with scarce human capital resources, such inputs at the frontier of “high technology” might be less relevant than the ability to make incremental adjustments that can transform existing technologies into inventions that are appropriate for general domestic conditions.
As Thomas Jefferson pointed out, a small innovation that can improve the lives of the mass of the population might be more economically important than a technically-advanced discovery that benefits only the few.