In a recent post called “Government as useful irritant” I said five factors increase innovation: 1. Freedom. 2. Benefit. 3. Resources. 4. Pain. 5. Stability. The effect of government isn’t simple. It might freedom — to the extent the coercion outweighs the protection — and of course corrupt governments make it harder to benefit from your innovation. On the other hand, governments often provide resources, pain and stability. Several of the factors are contradictory — pain and stability, for example — which makes it hard to produce optimal conditions, at least without paying attention to what actually happens.
A article I read soon after that (“Snowden and Greenwald: The Men Who Leaked the Secrets”) had two relevant examples. One of my points was that increasing inequality reduces innovation bad because it means the people at the top get more and more comfortable, which reduces their desire to innovate. The more inequality, the more of the population falls into two categories: 1. Too poor to innovate (not enough resources). 2. Too comfortable to innovate (not enough pain).
Greenwald saw the value of pain:
After graduation, he accepted a job in the litigation department of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz . . . “I could not thrive or even function in a controlling institution like that. There’s a huge dichotomy between people who grow up with alienation, which, for me, was invaluable, and people who grow up so completely privileged that it breeds this complacency and lack of desire to question or challenge or do anything significant.
Snowden had all five factors in large amounts. He had freedom because his bosses paid him little attention and, because of his IT talent, it was easy to get a job. He also had a lot of money. Obviously he had great resources, including IT talent, knowledge and access. He had pain because he was disgusted by NSA overreach and Obama’s failure to improve things. He had stability because he had a steady job. The money helped here, too. Because the revelations are so large, he benefits a lot, even if there is also a very big cost.