Revisionist Histories of America’s Digital Revolution

by on December 11, 2022 · 0 comments

Everywhere you look in tech policy land these days, people decry China as a threat to America’s technological supremacy or our national security. Many of these claims are well-founded, while others are somewhat overblown. Regardless, as I argue in a new piece for National Review this week, “America Won’t Beat China by Becoming China.” Many pundits and policymakers seem to think that only a massive dose of central planning and Big Government technocratic bureaucracy can counter the Chinese threat. It’s a recipe for a great deal of policy mischief.

Some of these advocates for a ‘let’s-be-more-like-China’ approach to tech policy also engage in revisionist histories about America’s recent success stories in the personal computing revolution and internet revolution. As I note in my essay, “[t]he revisionists instead prefer to believe that someone high up in government was carefully guiding this decentralized innovation. In the new telling of this story, deregulation had almost nothing to do with it.” In fact, I was asked by National Review to write this piece in response to a recent essay by Wells King of American Compass, who has penned some rather remarkable revisionist tales of government basically being responsible for all the innovation in digital tech sectors over the past quarter century. Markets and venture capital had nothing to do with it by his reasoning. It’s what Science writer Matt Ridley correctly labels “innovation creationism,” or the notion that it basically takes a village to raise an innovator.

Perhaps the best example of this sort of twisted logic was President Barack Obama’s infamous 2012 “you didn’t build that” speech, which was widely mocked by many conservatives at the time as being completely off the mark. The conservative critics rightly lambasted Obama for underplaying the role of markets, entrepreneurs, and private investors as the primary engine of America’s remarkably innovative economy. Unfortunately, however, many of today’s “national conservatives” are borrowing Obama’s twisted revisionist vision and, worse yet, fabricating entirely new nonsensical ‘it-takes-a-village’ narratives that go well beyond it.

In my essay, I explain why innovation creationism about the internet and the Digital Revolution gets the story of the past quarter century horribly wrong. The tech revisionist misidentify and overplay the role government played in this arena and they also ignore the many mistakes our government and other governments (especially in Europe) have made when trying to technocratically plan tech systems. As I conclude in my essay,

America’s world-leading digital-technology companies and technologies were not the product of intentional design or bureaucratic initiatives. Corporatism and central planning should be rejected as the basis for U.S. technology policy. And regardless of whether they happen to be trendy right now, economically illiterate arguments like King’s should be relegated to the ash heap of history.

Jump over to National Review to read the entire essay.  And here’s a list of some of my other recent writing on industrial policy:

Previous post:

Next post: