$4 well spent – Kealey on civilisation and free trade

STOP PRESS.  We are advised that Kealey is coming to the Mont Pelerin meeting in Sydney next month.

The $4 for Terence Kealey’s book The Economic Laws of Scientific Research is shaping up to be the best $4 that I ever spent. This came from the Sydney Uni book fair, it was culled from the Badham Science Library and it was clean enough to be unread despite some date stamps in the back. It is richly symbolic that this was thrown out of a university science library! Still, one man’s trash is another  man’s treasure.

The main theme is the way that free trade and private initiative have always been the main drivers of human welfare and also scientific research and development, even when rulers and governments provided generous support to research, education and technical training, thinking this was the most  effective way to organise things

The book is a tour de force of scholarship, using both the telescope of historical studies from the dawn of time to the microscope of close studies of particular people and projects.

I should modestly point out that I anticipated his main thesis in a book review circa 1988 (well before this book appeared in 1996).

In view of the current agitation over education and science policy  two areas of investigation call for urgent attention. One might be called “the ecology of intellectual achievement”. This concerns the personal, institutional and cultural factors which influence creativity and the growth of knowledge.  The other is a similarly ecological investigation of the influences which promote commercial application of research findings (the ‘D’ part of R&D).

It appears that pure and applied work can flourish in partnership if a number of conditions are met.  First, talented people are required who are interested in both practical and theoretical problems. Second, they should have high standards and high expectations of achievement. These attitudes tend to be assimilated by contact with gifted and inspiring teachers or colleagues early in life. They are killed by the inductivist, ‘just collect the facts’ method and the conformist, follow the Professor” ethos of Kuhn’s ‘normal science’. In each case the antidote is the Popperian spirit of conjecture and refutation.  Thirdly, institutional and personal linkages are required to carry ideas backwards and forwards between the study/laboratory and the factory/farm. 

Finally, to promote commercial application of ideas, industry needs to operate in a competitive environment, with the world as a potential market, instead of sheltering behind protective walls. Unfortunately most of the people who write about science policy start with the premise that more government involvement is required, more committees, more central direction to ‘pick winners’ for favoured (protected) treatment. It seem that the sad lesson of the New Protection (tariffs plus central wage fixing) has not been learned.

I want to write some more about the book and will do that in small doses. Here is a piece with a summary statement and another of the same and this is a counter-argument, conceding much of  his case but correcting for the possibilty of over-statement.



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3 Responses to $4 well spent – Kealey on civilisation and free trade

  1. Greg Lindsay says:

    Kealey will be speaking at the Mont Pelerin Socety meeting in Sydney next month.

  2. MarkL of Canberra says:

    Rafe, thanks for the tip. I am an economics innocent but have been digging in to matters economic for my thesis research. Deepak Lal and Surjit Bhalla have been real eye-openers. Kealey sounds like an enjoyable read.

    Anyhoo, right now back to Tainter’s ‘The Collapse of Complex Societies’ for me!


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