Innovation Policy at the Mercatus Center: The Shape of Things to Come

by on April 11, 2017 · 0 comments

Written with Christopher Koopman and Brent Skorup (originally published on Medium on 4/10/17)

Innovation isn’t just about the latest gee-whiz gizmos and gadgets. That’s all nice, but something far more profound is at stake: Innovation is the single most important determinant of long-term human well-being. There exists widespread consensus among historians, economists, political scientists and other scholars that technological innovation is the linchpin of expanded economic growth, opportunity, choice, mobility, and human flourishing more generally. It is the ongoing search for new and better ways of doing things that drives human learning and prosperity in every sense — economic, social, and cultural.

As the Industrial Revolution revealed, leaps in economic and human growth cannot be planned. They arise from societies that reward risk takers and legal systems that accommodate change. Our ability to achieve progress is directly proportional to our willingness to embrace and benefit from technological innovation, and it is a direct result of getting public policies right.

The United States is uniquely positioned to lead the world into the next era of global technological advancement and wealth creation. That’s why we and our colleagues at the Technology Policy Program at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University devote so much time and energy to defending the importance of innovation and countering threats to it. Unfortunately, those threats continue to multiply as fast as new technologies emerge.

Indeed, it isn’t easy keeping on top of all of these issues and threats because the only constant in the world of innovation policy — the study of technological change and its impact on social, economic, and political systems — is constant change. You go to sleep one night thinking you’ve got the world figured out, only to awake the next morning to see that another tectonic shift has reshaped the landscape.

In the industrial era, it was hard enough mapping the contours of this field of academic study. This task has grown far more challenging. Computing and Internet-enabled innovations have fundamentally reshaped society and have also helped spawn other technological revolutions in diverse fields such as: robotics, autonomous systems, artificial intelligence, big data, the Sharing Economy, 3D printing, virtual reality, aviation, advanced medical technology, blockchain and Bitcoin, and the so-called the Internet of Things.

The short-term social and economic disruptions caused by these and other new technologies often lead to backlashes and even occasional “techno-panics.” When those panics bubble over into the political arena, the risk is that misguided regulatory policies will short-circuit opportunities for creators and entrepreneurs to pursue life-enriching innovations.

At the Mercatus Center, where we study these and other topics, our goal is to bring greater focus to these emerging technologies and the many different facets of innovation policy surrounding them. How we accomplish these goals is as challenging as it is exciting. As more and more industries and business are affected by these emerging technologies, the decisions that policymakers make about them will have profound effects on large parts of our economy and society.

Specifically, as we place ourselves at the forefront of these debates, our aim is to:

  • Explore how innovation policy affects economic growth and mobility, consumer welfare, and global competitive advantage;
  • Identify barriers to entrepreneurial endeavors and devise a roadmap for how to remove them;
  • Push back against technopanics and overly-broad theories of “technological harm” that could limit innovation opportunities and greater consumer choice; and
  • Confront the legal and ethical concerns surrounding emerging technologies and craft constructive solutions to those problems to avoid solutions of the top-down, “command-and-control” variety.

Overall, our vision is simple: Permissionless innovation must become the norm rather than the exception. This means innovation and innovators are protected against efforts to preemptively control ongoing trial-and-error experimentation. We should let creative minds and empowered entrepreneurs experiment with new and better ways of doing things. It also means that the future if public policy should be rooted in fact-based analysis and not shaped by outlandish fears of hypothetical worst-case scenarios.

Going forward, you will continue to see Mercatus producing research applying permissionless innovation across a host of areas. You can also expect us to begin pursuing big questions about the future.

What if we could reduce the number of deaths on US roadways from 96 people per day to zero? What if we could double life expectancy? Triple it? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could travel from New York to London in three hours? New York to Los Angeles in 2.5 hours? What if we welcomed automation instead of fearing its effects on the workforce? What if we could remove the technical and political barriers keeping us from going to Mars and then beyond it? And so on.

We pose these questions not merely because they are intellectually interesting and important, but also because we hope to make the case for embracing the future with a sense of wonder and optimism about how technological advancement can radically improve human well-being in both the short- and long-run.

It isn’t enough to simply point out where innovators and entrepreneurs are being hindered. It isn’t enough to simply tell people that the future will be bright. We must explain, in real terms, how hindering innovation opportunities undermines our collective ability to constantly improve the human condition.

And because there is a symbiotic relationship between freedom and progress, we must defend our collective ability as a society to achieve very concrete, widely-shared advances in well-being through a general freedom to experiment with new technologies and better ways of doing things.

That is our vision for the Technology Policy Program at the Mercatus Center and we hope it is one that the public and public policymakers will embrace going forward.

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