Perhaps you already know that around the middle of the nineteenth century, Congress solicited the opinion of Henry L. Ellsworth, United States Commissioner of Patents, on the proposal for a new building for the Patent Office. Ellsworth advised that a new building not be too large or too expensive because, in his estimation, the republic had just about reached the limits of invention. Even though he found recent technological advances impressive, in his words, “the advancement of the arts from year to year taxes our credulity and seems to presage the arrival of that period when further improvements must end.” In short, Ellsworth believed there was little more to invent.
Ellsworth's comments are among the worst prognostications ever. In 1790, when the United States Patent Board was formed, three patents were issued. By Ellsworth's day, they totaled 3,300; a century later, almost three million. To date, over five million patents have been issued.
Defenders of the free economy like to quote figures such as these to demonstrate the practical excellence of free markets and private property, and they are correct to do so. No other economic system better harnesses people's productive abilities. Their demonstration is, however, incomplete. The patent explosion also provides an important moral argument in favor of the market. Not only is the free market staggeringly productive, it is also fundamentally just. Patents are the institutional protection of intellectual property rights, and few things are closer to the heart of human dignity than being able to lay claim to the fruits of one's intellect. And few things are more unjust than denying one's right to do so.
The Acton Institute, since its founding in 1990, has endeavored to present the moral case for the free market before our future religious leaders. I look forward to your continued support of this project throughout the next ten years. Thank you.
Fr. Robert A. Sirico