May 22 (Bloomberg) -- Most developed nations try to limit the inflow of people from less developed ones. Yet, until the early 1800s, migration policy worked in the opposite direction, and was aimed at preventing skilled people in relatively advanced economies from seeking opportunity elsewhere.
For centuries, Europe’s rulers believed that when it came to trade, one nation’s gain was another’s loss, and that the strength of a state depended on an ample treasury of precious metals to finance war. Along with import prohibitions, export bounties and high tariffs, bans on emigration were seen as legitimate means to encourage the sale of goods that would bring in gold from abroad.
And trade secrets were even more vital than they are now, because they would be kept longer. As Adam Smith wrote in 1776 in “The Wealth of Nations,” a “dyer who has found the means of producing a particular color with materials which cost only half the price of those commonly made use of, may, with good management, enjoy the advantage of his discovery as long as he lives, and even leave it as a legacy to his posterity.”
A nation that could prevent its artisans from transferring their knowledge abroad seemed to have a good chance of extending a de facto monopoly for decades or even centuries.
One of the earliest bans on emigration was imposed on the glass artisans of Venice, whose workshops on the island of Murano were renowned for luxury wares. Such laws and edicts originated in the 13th century, and could be drastic. In 1597, a group of emigrants was summoned to return or face the penalty of being chained to galley oars for five years and paying a heavy fine. Others had their local property confiscated, and the death penalty could apply.
While many emigrants evaded the draconian laws, the penalties probably slowed the drift of masters to northern European centers where they were offered significantly higher income.
By the time of the American Revolution, emigration of artisans appeared to threaten not just luxury industries such as glassware but also the foundations of the empire, or so Britain’s statesmen believed. As a result, recognition of American independence brought a new phase of struggle. If British machines and the workers who built and maintained them could be kept from the U.S., the commercial hegemony of London could be maintained and even strengthened, because Americans were still attached to British manufactures and under the Articles of Confederation each state pursued its own economic policy.
In “Trade Secrets: Intellectual Piracy and the Origins of American Industrial Power,” the historian Doron S. Ben-Atar has shown how resolutely Britain enforced decrees against American states and their nascent industries. Sea captains were required to demand a certificate from an emigrant’s parish confirming that he “is not, nor hath ever been, a manufacturer or artificer in wool, iron, steel, brass, or any other metal,” among other trades. The law threatened heavy fines for evasion. Emigrating textile workers forfeited their citizenship and property and could even be tried for treason. Even patents that had expired in Britain, while free for domestic use, were considered state secrets in the rest of the world.
Conversely, most of the political and business leaders of the early American Republic believed that they would need not just the designs of British and other European machinery but workers familiar with their construction and operation.
States sent industrial spies to gather secrets and induce emigration. Would-be emigrants solicited bonuses and inducements from American diplomats abroad for bringing new manufactures. Even Thomas Jefferson, for all his agrarian ideals and suspicion of urbanism and industry, helped acquire manufacturing skills in the national interest.
The emigration movement’s leading avatar was Samuel Slater, a former manager in one of Britain’s most advanced mills. After reading of the impressive bonuses offered for construction of even inferior machines in the U.S., he committed to memory the system of textile machinery developed by Richard Arkwright. Slater left England disguised as a farmer, without notice to his own family. He formed a partnership with the Rhode Island manufacturer Moses Brown, who had smuggled over some of the machines, and became known as the founder of the American textile industry. (Even today a BBC.com site describing his contributions seems unsure of whether to regard him as a hero of industry or a commercial Benedict Arnold in reverse.)
Slater’s case shows why the ease of fabricating documents (and no doubt bribing officials and ships’ masters) made Britain’s emigration bans futile in the long run. When non-naturalized British citizens were required to register as enemy aliens during the War of 1812, almost one in three northeastern city dwellers met the criteria. This critical mass made further inducements unnecessary. The U.S. government began to recognize international patent rights. The growing influence of Smith, David Ricardo and other liberal political economists discredited the old “mercantilist” policies and made free trade the new orthodoxy.
The benefits of expanding trade also refuted the assumption that one nation’s gain had to be another’s loss. Recognizing its unenforceability, Britain ended its artisan emigration ban in 1824.
Today, trade secrets are governed mainly by civil law in the form of nondisclosure and noncompetition agreements. Even though we are alarmed by global industrial espionage, we should recall that as an industrial nation, we were founded in large part by people who pirated their own skills.
(Edward Tenner is author of “Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences” and “Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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