Law of the handicap of a head start

Law of the handicap of a head start

The Law of the handicap of a head start (original Dutch: Wet van de remmende voorsprong) is a theory that suggests that getting an initial head start in a given area may result in being 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 phenomenon

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.[1]


The most noted example of the law was seen in 19th century England, which was at the forefront of the industrial revolution; the technology and infrastructure installed at the time later became a hindrance to further modernisation. Conversely, countries like Japan and the Soviet Union, being industrial latecomers, were able to adopt the latest industrial technologies with little disruption from, and to, their existing infrastructure.

It has also been argued that the widespread destruction of industry in Germany during the World War II enabled the adoption of the most modern technologies afterwards, and contributed to the Wirtschaftswunder. More contemporary examples include those pertaining to Internet infrastructure, like the adoption of IPv6.

From the original essay

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. 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.

From Dutch popular culture

In Dutch popular culture the Law is sometimes invoked to explain the often observed phenomenon that athletes can more easily reach the top of their profession than that they can maintain that level. However, such observations are often better explained by the Regression towards the mean phenomenon.

From fables

In the fable of The Tortoise and the Hare, the hare is so confident of its speed, and so happy with its progress, that it squanders its lead by wasting time and ignoring the tortoise it is racing against. Eventually, despite the hare's enormous head start, the tortoise wins the race.


  1. ^ van der Hoeven, Erik (1980). De wet van de stimulerende achterstand. Amsterdam: Bakker. ISBN 90-6019-742-9. 

External links

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