Is American Innovation Fading?
Religion & Liberty Online

Is American Innovation Fading?

In a fascinating essay in Mosaic, Charles Murray examines the spirit of innovation in America. He asks,

As against pivotal moments in the story of human accomplishment, does today’s America, for instance, look more like Britain blooming at the end of the 18th century or like France fading at the end of the 19th century? If the latter, are there idiosyncratic features of the American situation that can override what seem to be longer-run tendencies?

The author of Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, Murray amassed data from virtually all of human history, across cultures and in vast categories of human endeavor. He believes that there are patterns to innovation, creativity and advancement, and that certain cultural standards support and encourage this, while others degrade it. Murray makes the case that America is floundering, if not fading, when it comes to innovation and invention.

There are four broad categories examined here:

  1. Wealth, cities and politics
  2. Raw materials
  3. The need for purpose and autonomy
  4. Transcendental goods

In the first, Murray notes that growing economies naturally encourage innovation and invention. There’s simply more money for such things if a country doesn’t have to worry about basic human essential needs. Moreover, some cultures value novelty and innovation more than others. In America today, Murray argues, we say we value invention, but we tie the hands of innovators with regulations and red tape.

The idea of raw materials is a bit more complex than simply what one might find lying around in order to build something. Murray talks about it in terms of “organizing structures:”

The degree of creativity triggered by an organizing structure can be measured in two dimensions. One is the structure’s inherent richness. Both checkers and chess enjoy organizing structures, but chess’s is much the richer, making the potential for accomplishment in that game commensurately greater. Something similar may be said of the sonnet versus the novel: many beautiful sonnets have been written, but the organizing structure of that form is much more restrictive than the novel’s.

The second dimension is the structure’s age. However rich they may be, organizing structures do grow old. In the arts, talented creators in each generation want to do new things; although the form of the classical symphony may well have room for more great works to appear, young composers want to try something else. In science, the aging process works differently. The discovery of E=mc² can happen only once. Sooner or later, each scientific discipline not only ages, it “fills up.”

Humans are most innovative, Murray believes, when they have a sense of purpose in their life, tied to the understanding that the purpose of their life is unique to them. It is a sense of vocation rather than merely work and a desire to fulfill that purpose with something more than simply getting a regular paycheck. Murray attaches great value to the Christian worldview here: God has made me for a purpose and I need to fulfill that. In the past, American put great stock in mindset. We valued “exceptionalism” that was unique to Americans, and that one could achieve whatever one set out to do. Now, however, Murray says that ideal no longer exists:

A few decades ago, it would have been unthinkable for a president of the United States to make President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” speech, celebrating the supremacy of the collective and denigrating the contribution of the individual. It would have been political suicide. No longer.

Finally, there are the transcendental goods, that which cannot be quantified, but rather is a culture’s coherent vision. What does it mean to be human? To do good? What has value? What creates value for the self and for others? Is there a greater good to which the majority strive? Here again, our culture flounders, as Murray says we live in a country “that increasingly rejects the belief that human life has a transcendental dimension.”

Murray raises unsettling questions. We have reached an age of amazing achievements in technology and communication. However, America’s economy increasingly resembles that of Europe (which is stagnant), we restrict innovators with governmental regulations, and we are losing a sense that humans are special, and that each of us has gifts and talents to share.

In light of that template, though, it is clear that if we are to override historical tendencies and avoid deep trouble, we had better have at our disposal some of those exceptional dynamics. For when a government is increasingly hostile to innovation, as America’s is, and a society is decreasingly industrious, as America’s is, and a culture stops lionizing innovators, as America’s has, and elites increasingly deny that life has transcendent purpose, as America’s do, innovation must be expected to diminish markedly.

To return to the contrast I suggested at the outset: today we bear little resemblance to England at the end of the 18th century, and look a lot like France fading at the end of the 19th.

Read, “Does America Still Have What It Takes?” at

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.