Dispatch from JMI’s “Tech & Innovation Summit” Panel on Progress Studies

by on September 16, 2022 · 0 comments

It was my pleasure this week to participate in a panel discussion about the future of innovation policy at the James Madison Institute’s 2022 Tech and Innovation Summit in Coral Gables, FL. Our conversation focused on the future of Progress Studies, which is one of my favorite topics. We were asked to discuss five major questions and below I have summarized some of my answers to them, plus some other thoughts I had about what I heard at the conference from others.

  1. What is progress studies and why is it so needed today?

In a sense, Progress Studies is nothing new. Progress studies goes back at least to the days of Adam Smith and plenty of important scholars have been thinking about it ever since. Those scholars and policy advocates have long been engaged in trying to figure out what’s the secret sauce that powers economic growth and human prosperity. It’s just that we didn’t call that Progress Studies in the old days.

The reason Progress Studies is important is because technological innovation has been shown to be the fundamental driver in improvements in human well-being over time.  When we can move the needle on progress, it helps individuals extend and improve their lives, incomes, and happiness. By extension, progress helps us live lives of our choosing. As Hans Rosling brilliantly argued, the goal of expanding innovation opportunities and raising incomes “is not just bigger piles of money” or more leisure time. “The ultimate goal is to have the freedom to do what we want.”

  1. What don’t policymakers get about progress?

Policymakers often fail to appreciate the connection between innovation policy defaults and actual real-world innovation outcomes. Here is the biggest no-duh statement ever uttered: If you discourage innovation by default, you’ll get a lot less of it. In other words, incentives matters if you hope to create a positive innovation culture. Innovation culture refers to the various social and political attitudes, policies and entrepreneurial activities that, taken together, influence the innovative capacity of a particular region.

Thus, when policymakers make the Precautionary Principle the legal default for innovative activities, it means that government has put a red light in front of entrepreneurs and treated them and their innovations as guilty until proven innocent.  That’s a sure-fire recipe for stagnation.

The better approach is to make Permissionless Innovation our policy default and treat entrepreneurs and innovations as innocent until proven guilty. When our policy defaults offer entrepreneurs more green lights instead of red ones, it encourages more experimentation with new and better ways of doing things. In turn, this spurs business formation, job creation, new industries and products, and broad-based economic growth.

But policymakers consistently ignore this fundamental reality about the connection between policy and progress.

  1. Can you think of any states or governments that are doing a good job of putting the insights of progress studies into practice?

This summer, I co-authored an essay about, “How Arizona Is Getting Innovation Culture Right,” and highlighted the many important reforms undertaken over the past eight years by Gov. Doug Ducey and the Arizona Legislature. Arizona has advanced several reforms that have helped the state get its innovation culture right both broadly and narrowly. Broadly speaking, the state took steps to minimize red tape burdens and streamline permitting process and occupational licensing mandates. They also promoted “right to earn a living” and “right to try” initiatives to broaden worker and patient opportunities.

In terms of more targeted reforms, Arizona took steps to clear the way for greater broadband rollout and encouraged experimentation with commercial drones and driverless cars. The state also helped pioneer the use of “regulatory sandboxes,” which grant innovators a temporary safe space free of excessive regulatory burdens so they can experiment with new products and services.

And then there’s the city of Miami. At the JMI event, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez delivered a keynote address and he identified 3 keys to attracting talent and building opportunity: (1) Keep taxes low, (2) keep people safe, and (3) focus on innovation. He’s following that script and making Miami a hotbed of entrepreneurial opportunity.

Mayor Suarez spoke of how he is embracing emerging technologies like blockchain to compete with the traditional geographic Goliaths of tech, like San Francisco and New York. There’s been a massive inflow of companies and investors as a result. The city has become #1 in tech job growth and the inflow of tech entrepreneurs. “It turns out that if you welcome people… they come,” he said. “They want to migrate to places that are on the cutting edge of technology” and find “pathways to prosperity.”

Miami and Arizona offer great models that other cities and states could follow if they hope to improve their own innovation culture.

  1. What is the difference between progress studies and industrial organization, or industrial policy, or “government planning, but for innovation”?

Many policymakers foolishly believe there exists a precise technocratic cocktail that can immediately unlock innovation through highly targeted interventions and spending initiatives. In reality, achieving consistent growth and prosperity requires more than Big Government gimmicks. It’s a long game.

Many politicians and pundits are often fond of using machine-like metaphors and insisting that they have the ability to “fine-tune” innovative outcomes or “dial-in” economic development according to a precise formula. This is how we end up trillions in debt without much to show for it. Most recently, we’ve witnessed an “orgy of spending” on industrial policy schemes at the federal level.

The better metaphor for thinking about a nation’s innovation culture might be a plant or garden. Two of the great Progress Studies thinkers are F. A. Hayek and Joel Mokyr. Hayek once suggested that policymakers should aim to “cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants.”  And Mokyr has argued that technological innovation and economic progress must be viewed as “a fragile and vulnerable plant, whose flourishing is not only dependent on the appropriate surroundings and climate, but whose life is almost always short. It is highly sensitive to the social and economic environment and can easily be arrested by relatively small external changes.”

Thus, the technocratic industrial policy mindset is always looking for “sexy” initiatives that capture a lot of short-term media attention, but typically fail to produce meaningful innovations or lasting growth. What’s more important to long-term prosperity is that policymakers get the “boring” stuff right.

The building blocks of the “boring” general approach economic development is a mix of broadly applicable tax, spending, regulatory and legal rules that help create a stable innovation ecosystem. Again, it’s like Mayor Suarez’s 3-prong approach of low taxes, safe communities, and a welcoming embrace of entrepreneurialism. That’s the secret sauce that fuels long-term progress and a sustainable prosperity.

  1. Is there a disconnect between the theories of progress and the practice – in other words, is it a problem of governance forms?

Indeed, I already mentioned the difference between the Precautionary Principle and Permissionless Innovation and it’s always interesting to me how my scholars ignore the importance of these governance forms when thinking about how to advance progress. There exists an unfortunate tendency among many to either ignore or repeat the mistakes of the past. Having made significant economic and societal gains thanks to past technological progress, many pundits and policymakers come to take much of it for granted. Thus, Progress Studies requires a process of constant re-education to remind each new generation of what helped raise our living standards so dramatically over the past two centuries.

The dramatic growth in incomes, life expectancy, and human welfare were not the product of sheer luck but of important policy choices. The freedom to think, to innovate, and to trade are the three freedoms that gave us our modern riches. If our governance forms limit those foundational freedoms, our current welfare and future prosperity will suffer. This is the great lesson of Progress Studies.


Additional Reading from Adam Thierer on Progress Studies


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