As Catherine Fisk and Danielle Citron point out in their thoughtful reviews here and here, the wisdom of freeing talent must go beyond private firm level decisions; beyond the message to corporations about what the benefits of talent mobility, beyond what Frank Pasquale’s smartly spun as “reversing Machiavelli’s famous prescription, Lobel advises the Princes of modern business that it is better to be loved than feared.” To get to an optimal equilibrium of knowledge exchanges and mobility, smart policy is needed and policymakers must to pay attention to research. Both Fisk and Citron raise questions about the likelihood that we will see reforms anytime soon. As Fisk points out — and as her important historical work has skillfully shown, and more recently, as we witness developments in several states including Michigan, Texas and Georgia as well as (again as Fisk and Citron point out) in certain aspects of the pending Restatement of Employment — the movement of law and policy has actually been toward more human capital controls rather than less. This is perhaps unsurprising to many of us. Like with the copyright extension act which was the product of heavyweight lobbying, these shifts were supported by strong interest groups. What is perhaps different with the talent wars is the robust evidence that suggests that everyone, corporations large and small, new and old, can gain from loosening controls. Citron points to an irony that I too have been quite troubled by: the current buzz is about the intense need for talent, the talent drought, the shortage in STEM graduates. As Citron describes, the art and science of recruitment is all the rage. But while we debate reforms in schooling and reforms in immigration policies, we largely neglect to consider a reality of much deadweight loss of through talent controls.
The good news is that not only in Massachusetts, where the governor has just expressed his support in reforming state law to narrow the use of non-competes, but also in other state legislatures , courts and agencies, we see a greater willingness to think seriously about positive reforms. At the state level, the jurisdictional variations points to the double gain of regions that void or at least strongly narrow the use of non-competes. California for example gains twice: first by encouraging more human capital flow intra-regionally and second, by its willingness to give refuge to employees who have signed non-competes elsewhere. In other words, the positive effects stem not only from having the right policies of setting talent free but also from its comparative advantage vis-à-vis more controlling states. This brain gain effect has been shown empirically: areas that enforce strong post-employment controls have higher rates of departure of inventors to other regions. States that weakly enforce non-competes are on the receiving side of the cream of the crop. One can only hope that legislature and business leaders will take these findings very seriously.
At the federal level, in a novel approach to antitrust the federal government recently took up the investigation of anti-competitive practices between high-tech giants that had agreed not to poach one another’s employee. This in fact relates to Shubha Gosh’s questions about defining competition and the meaning of free and open labor markets. And it is a good moment to pause about the extent to which we encourage secrecy in both private and public organizations. It is a moment in which the spiraling scandals of economic espionage by governments coupled with leaks and demand for more transparency require us to think hard. In this context, Citron is right to raise the question of government 2.0 – for individuals to be committed and motivated to contribute to innovation, they need some assurances that their contributions will not be entirely appropriated by concentrated interests.