In his speech on the economy today, Mitt Romney invoked Thomas Edison and other legendary American inventors in the course of bashing Obama for his hostility towards economic freedom and America greatness.
“Under President Obama’s administration, these pioneers would have found it much more difficult, if not impossible, to innovate, invent, and create,” Romney said, adding: “The government would have banned Thomas Edison’s light bulb. Oh yeah, Obama’s regulators actually did just that.”
Putting aside Romney’s joke, which is premised on a falsehood, this raises a question: Is it possible to evaluate Romney’s overall claim that the heavy hand of Obama-era government regulation would squelch Edison’s creative genius if he stepped off a time-machine?
I checked in with Paul Israel, the author of an Edison biography and an expert on the development of electric lighting systems. Israel, the director of the Thomas Edison Papers at Rutgers University, termed the comparison “silly.”
Israel said one way to evaluate Romney’s claim is to look at how Edison dealt with the government regulation of his day. As it happens, when it comes to Edison’s principle contribution to American life, government regulation functioned as something of an incentive to innovation on his part.
In the 1870s, Israel said, above-ground wiring for the telegraph and telephone were already posing a public nuisance. So state and city governments — which were also mulling installing electric lighting systems — were beginning to advocate for underground wiring.
“By the time Edison was working on the lightbulb in 1878, there was mounting pressure from states and cities to force electric lines underground,” said Israel, a registered Democrat. “And so, as part of his design, he wanted an underground system.”
That turned out to allow Edison to get ahead of the game. “One of the things that clearly spurred a key element of innovation in the design of his electrical system was that regulation was going to force electric lines underground,” Israel said.
Obviously it’s impossible to evaluate how today’s regulatory apparatus would have impacted the likes of Edison. But...
“Edison was a Republican,” Israel said. “Republicans in that era tended to be much more in favor of government regulation and goverment involvment in the economy than Democrats. He supported Teddy Roosevelt, the great trust-buster.”
“It’s a silly comparison,” Israel concluded. “The problem is more the lack of historical understanding of the fact that the American economic system has never been a truly free system. Its development has always occurred in partnership with government.”