Intellectual Protectionism

By | March 25, 2016

Protectionism is the economic policy of restricting the import of foreign goods, and although appealing has an almost universally negative economic effect. It is also easy to fall into the trap of intellectual protectionism – when we place barriers and restrictions to the ‘importation’ of external ideas and solutions. Just as in economics, intellectual protectionism is harmful to everyone, and prevents us from getting things done.

Protectionism Hurts Everyone

In economic terms protectionism refers to the quotas, limitations and trade tariffs placed by countries or regions on imported goods. The intention of these tariffs is to protect internal industries from cheaper, better foreign imports. Although this may sound like a good idea at face value (particularly for those people and industries protected by the tariffs), the end result is frequently damaging for everyone as governments effectively subsidize low quality, expensive goods.

Everyone is usuall better off if they focus on doing or producing what they do best, and rely on others to do or produce what they do best too.

Intellectual Protectionism Is Harmful Too

Just like its economic namesake, intellectual protectionism involves placing barriers to external ideas and solutions. Rather than directly solving our problem by embracing existing solutions, it is easy to get side-tracked and start reinventing the wheel. Instead of being creative and solving problems we end up just going over old ground.

An example might be when trying to create a website we might get side-tracked try to create our own content management system (like WordPress). If our goal was to create a content management system, this is fine. But really we wanted to make a website, and refusing to use an existing solution gets in the way of that. Instead of unveiling our new, world-changing website on the world we get bogged down in our content management system and our project runs out of steam.

Another common example is attempting to build from scratch a piece of equipment, when it is already possible to buy one off the shelf. Yes, it’s true that buying a solution in might be expensive, but it would allow us to attack our real problem directly. We wouldn’t have to wait six months to build and test our system. Instead of making progress with world-leading research we have spent our time building a commonly available piece of equipment.

Don’t Get Bogged Down, Get Something Done

Of course, there is nothing wrong with academic exercises to explore a problem, or get to grips with a solution. There will also be times when there is no solution already in existence. But if what you really care about is solving a problem, and getting things done, you don’t want to get bogged down trying to recreate something that already exists.

Starting afresh on a problem often seems like a good idea – it’s fun, it’s exciting, and you feel like you’re making quick progress – but often you will discover problems you hadn’t anticipated. You will find yourself bogged down and not making progress towards solving your actual problem.

How to Avoid Intellectual Protectionism

I think intelletual protectionism – the tendency to prefer our own work  rather than using that of others – is natural and common. But there are also some things we can do to avoid falling into the intellectual protectionism trap.

  • Focus on the problem you want to solve. Try not to become sidetracked by a small part of it.
  • Do some research. Has your problem already been solved? Or has progress already been made elsewhere?
  • Can you solve your problem by bringing together multiple existing partial solutions?
  • Try to be lazy. Think of other people’s solutions as a short-cut to achieving what you what to achieve.