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. (March 2011)
The law of the handicap of a head start (original Dutch: Wet van de remmende voorsprong), first-mover disadvantage, or dialectics of lead, is a theory that suggests that an initial head start in a given area may result in a handicap in the long term. The term was coined in 1937 by Jan Romein, a Dutch journalist and historian, in his essay "The dialectics of progress" ("De dialectiek van de vooruitgang"), part of the series "The unfinished past" (Het onvoltooid verleden). The mirror image of the law – an initial arrears in a given area may stimulate a development leading to a long-term advantage – is known as the law of the stimulative arrears.
The law of the handicap of a head start describes a phenomenon that is applicable in numerous settings. The law suggests that making progress in a particular area often creates circumstances in which stimuli are lacking to strive for further progress. This results in the individual or group that started out ahead eventually being overtaken by others. In the terminology of the law, the head start, initially an advantage, subsequently becomes a handicap.
An explanation for why the phenomenon occurs is that when a society dedicates itself to certain standards, and those standards change, it is harder for them to adapt. Conversely, a society that has not committed itself yet will not have this problem. Thus, a society that at one point has a head start over other societies, may, at a later time, be stuck with obsolete technology or ideas that get in the way of further progress. One consequence of this is that what is considered to be the state of the art in a certain field can be seen as "jumping" from place to place, as each leader soon becomes a victim of the handicap.
In common terms, societies, companies, and individuals are often confronted with the decision to either invest now and get a fast return, or put off the investment until a new technology has emerged and possibly make a bigger profit then. For example, a regular problem for individuals is the decision of when to buy a new computer. Since computer speed develops at a steady pace, delaying the investment for a year may mean having to make do with a slower (or no) computer for the first year, but after that the individual will be able to buy a better computer for the same price. In many cases, however, the technological development is not as predictable as this, so it is harder to make an informed decision.
A related law that can be considered as the contrary of this law is the Law of the stimulative arrears (Wet van de stimulerende achterstand) published by Erik van der Hoeven in 1980.
The author gives an example of the law in his original essay. During a trip to London, he wonders why at that time it was still lit by gas lamps, rather than electric lights as were by then common in other European capitals like Amsterdam. His explanation was that London's head start—their possession of street lights before most other cities—was now holding them back in replacing them with the more modern electric lights. As the streets were already lit there was no pressing need to replace gas lamps, despite the other advantages of electric lighting.
A modern example—an independent observation given not by the author—the internet situation in the US and Romania. Romania got access to the latest and the greatest equipment in a time where it hadn't laid down any cables, but the US has already done that in the past. Upgrades from the American point of view would be a waste of money, as their equipment is already "doing the job".