The Most Important Technology Policy Book of the Past Quarter Century

by on January 20, 2022 · 0 comments

Discourse magazine has just published my review of Where Is My Flying Car?, by J. Storrs Hall, which I argue is the most important book on technology policy written in the past quarter century. Hall perfectly defines what is at stake if we fail to embrace a pro-progress policy vision going forward. Hall documents how a “Jetsons” future was within our grasp, but it was stolen away from us. What held back progress in key sectors like transportation, nanotech & energy was anti-technological thinking and the overregulation that accompanies it. “[T]he Great Stagnation was really the Great Strangulation,” he argues. The culprits: negative cultural attitudes toward innovation, incumbent companies or academics looking to protect their turf, litigation-happy trial lawyers, and a raft of risk-averse laws and regulations.

Hall coins the term “the Machiavelli Effect” to identify why many people simultaneously fear the new and different, and they also want to protect whatever status quo they benefit from (or at least feel comfortable with). He builds on this passage from Niccolò Machiavelli’s classic 1532 study of political power, “The Prince”:

[I]t ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, then to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them.

Hall notes that the Machiavelli Effect “has nothing to do with any conspiracy.” Rather, it comes down to human nature: Many people simultaneously fear the new and different, and they also want to protect whatever status quo they benefit from (or at least feel comfortable with). Isaac Asimov identified the same problem in a 1974 lecture when he noted how there had been “bitter, exaggerated, last-stitch resistance . . . to every significant technological change that had taken place on earth.” [On this same point, also see Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies, by Calestous Juma. It’s the best history on the topic.]

Hall identifies how the Machiavelli Effect held back nuclear, nanotech, and aviation technologies. “Over the long run, unchecked regulation destroys the learning curve, prevents innovation, protects and preserves inefficiency, and makes progress run backward.” The problem is the Precautionary Principle, which undermines the learning curve is by setting policy defaults to no trial and error as opposed to free to experiment. There can be no reward without some risk! Hall quotes Wilbur Wright on this, who once noted that, “If you are looking for perfect safety, you would do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds.”

Over-regulation of those sectors also resulted in massive misallocation of talent, “taking more than a million of the country’s most talented and motivated people and putting them to work making arguments and filing briefs instead of inventing, developing, and manufacturing.” Hall is equally critical of government R&D efforts. “One of the great tragedies of the latter 20th century, and clearly one of the causes of the Great Stagnation,” he argues, “was the increasing centralization and bureaucratization of science and research funding.”

Hall’s book builds on Jason Crawford’s insight that, “We need a new philosophy of progress,” that is rooted in optimism about the future and support for a culture of trial-and-error experimentation. Hall’s book is a major contribution to that effort. Hall makes a profoundly moral case for innovation. “The zero-sum society is a recipe for evil,” because it leaves us with a “static level of existence” that denies us the ability to improve the human condition. Indeed, Hall’s book is the most full-throated defense of innovation by a trained scientist or engineer since Samuel Florman’s 1976 “Existential Pleasures of Engineering.” Both are celebrations of the potential for humanity to build more and better tools to improve the world.

Hall’s book should also be read alongside books from Virginia Postrel (“The Future and Its Enemies”), Steven Pinker (“Enlightenment Now”), Matt Ridley (“How Innovation Works”) and Deirdre McCloskey’s three-volume trilogy about the history of modern economic growth. These scholars argue that there is a symbiotic relationship between innovation, economic growth, pluralism and human betterment, and that to deny people the ability to improve their lot in life is fundamentally anti-human.


I just cannot recommend Hall’s Where Is My Flying Car? highly enough. It’s a masterpiece. And bravo to Stripe Press for publishing a beautiful hardbound edition. It is a stunning book both to behold and read. Order it now, and jump over to Discourse to read my entire review of it.


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