Keeping your new ideas secret is probably wrong


Harrison Ainsworth

When you think of a great new idea you are immediately concerned with keeping it secret. You want to hold on to it and reap its advantage. But this is probably wrong, both morally and economically.

For morality, one can refer to Kant's categorical imperative. Can you will that everyone holds on to ideas, and denies them, in part, to everyone else? No, because each person in claiming their own advantage, also denies themselves the much larger benefit to be gained from everyone else. It is in a sense contradictory, and also undesirable; by Kantian evaluation, it is immoral.

For economics, one can refer to Adam Smith's concept of absolute advantage. Can you imagine there are other people who can implement your idea, or parts of it, in other, or better ways than you? Almost certainly – you have less capability than everyone else together. So by sharing your idea you can benefit from other people's implementations of it. There is a ‘gain from trade’ or really from sharing (though that perhaps doesn't have the economic respect it should); by basic standard evaluation, it is economically good.

The moral argument seems clear, but the economic one is rather simple and theoretical. Probably as with economic ‘free trade’, details of actual practice might significantly complicate its effects and evaluation. However, the simple acceptance that it is good to keep ideas secret seems overturned.