Articles by Adam Thierer

Adam ThiererAdam is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He previously served as President of the Progress & Freedom Foundation, Director of Telecom. Studies at the Cato Institute, and Fellow in Economic Policy at the Heritage Foundation.


There is a war going on in the conservative movement over free speech issues and FCC Commissioner Mike O’Reilly just became a causality of that skirmish. Neil Chilson and I just posted a new essay about this over on the Federalist Society blog. As we note there:

Plenty of people claim to favor freedom of expression, but increasingly the First Amendment has more fair-weather friends than die-hard defenders. Michael O’Rielly, a Commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), found that out the hard way this week.

Last week, O’Rielly delivered an important speech before the Media Institute highlighting a variety of problematic myths about the First Amendment, as well as “a particularly ominous development in this space.” In a previous political era, O’Rielly’s remarks would have been mainstream conservative fare. But his well-worded warnings are timely with many Democrats and Republicans – including some in the White House – looking to resurrect analog-era speech mandates and let Big Government reassert control over speech decisions in the United States.

Shortly after delivering his remarks, the White House yanked O’Rielly’s nomination to be reappointed to the agency. It was a shocking development that was likely motivated by growing animosities between Republicans on the question of how much control the federal government–and the FCC in particular–should exercise over speech platforms, including platforms that the FCC has no authority to regulate.

For the 30 years that I have been covering media and technology policy, I’ve heard conservatives rail against the Fairness Doctrine, Net Neutrality and arbitrary Big Government only to see many of them now reverse suit and become the biggest defenders of these things as it pertains to speech controls and FCC regulation. It will certainly be interesting to see what a potential future Biden Administration does with the various new regulations that some in the GOP are seeking to impose. Continue reading →

“The world should think better about catastrophic and existential risks.” So says a new feature essay in The Economist. Indeed it should, and that includes existential risks associated with emerging technologies.

The primary focus of my research these days revolves around broad-based governance trends for emerging technologies. In particular, I have spent the last few years attempting to better understand how and why “soft law” techniques have been tapped to fill governance gaps. As I noted in this recent post compiling my recent writing on the topic;

soft law refers to informal, collaborative, and constantly evolving governance mechanisms that differ from hard law in that they lack the same degree of enforceability. Soft law builds upon and operates in the shadow of hard law. But soft law lacks the same degree of formality that hard law possess. Despite many shortcomings and criticisms, compared with hard law, soft law can be more rapidly and flexibly adapted to suit new circumstances and address complex technological governance challenges. This is why many regulatory agencies are tapping soft law methods to address shortcomings in the traditional hard law governance systems.

I argued in recent law review articles as well as my latest book, despite its imperfections, I believe that soft law has an important role to play in filling governance gaps that hard law struggles to address. But there are some instances where soft law simply will not cut it. Continue reading →

My thanks to Dr. Wayne Brough, President at Innovation Defense Foundation, for reviewing my new book, Evasive Entrepreneurs and the Future of Governance, over at the AIER website. Brough says of the book:

Adam Thierer has created a thoughtful and surprisingly timely book examining the interplay between entrepreneurs, innovation, and regulators. Thoughtful because he tackles tough questions of innovation and governance in a dynamic market. Timely because the coronavirus pandemic has forced policymakers to seriously reconsider the cumulative regulatory burden and how it may impede the economic recovery. Whether it’s V-shaped or a slower, longer recovery, decades worth of regulatory underbrush has taken its toll on economic activity while providing few, if any, benefits.

He also does a nice job summarizing the key theme of both this latest book and my previous one on Permissionless Innovation:

Thierer takes to task the anti-growth mentality and the political movements against innovation and growth, highlighting the long tradition of hostility toward innovation, from the early 19th-century Luddites up through today’s technophobes advocating restrictions on new technologies such as artificial intelligence. Much of this is driven by the precautionary principle, which Thierer views as an inappropriate guide for regulators. The precautionary principle is a highly risk-averse standard that provides regulators an excuse to stifle innovation for the slightest perceived hazard.

But Dr. Brough rightly takes me to task for not addressing intellectual property issues in either book. He’s right. Continue reading →

Cover of the Pathways DocumentOn July 23rd, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) released Pathways to the Future of Transportation, which was billed as “a policy document that is intended to serve as a roadmap for innovators of new cross modal technologies to engage with the Department.” This guidance document was created by a new body called the Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology (NETT) Council, which was formed by U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao last year. The NETT Council is described as “an internal deliberative body to identify and resolve jurisdictional and regulatory gaps that may impede the deployment of new technologies.”

The creation of NETT Council and the issuance of its first major report highlight the continued growth of “soft law” as a major governance trend for emerging technology in the US. Soft law refers to informal, collaborative, and constantly evolving governance mechanisms that differ from hard law in that they lack the same degree of enforceability. A partial inventory of soft law methods includes: multistakeholder processes, industry best practices or codes of conduct, technical standards, private certifications, agency workshops and guidance documents, informal negotiations, and education and awareness efforts. But this list of soft law mechanisms is amorphous and ever-changing.

Soft law systems and processes are multiplying at every level of government today: federal, state, local, and even globally. Such mechanisms are being tapped by government bodies today to deal with fast-moving technologies that are evolving faster than the law’s ability to keep up.

The US Department of Transportation has become a leading candidate for Soft Law Central at the federal level. The agency has been tapping a variety of soft law mechanisms and approaches to deal with driverless cars and drone policy issues in particular. (See the essays listed down below for more details).

The NETT Council represents the next wave of this governance trend. We might consider it an effort to bring a greater degree of formality and coordination to the agency’s soft law efforts. Continue reading →

In an amazing new MIT Technology Review piece, Antonio Regalado discusses how, “Some scientists are taking a DIY coronavirus vaccine, and nobody knows if it’s legal or if it works.” It is another powerful example of how “citizen-science” and medical self-experimentation (or “biohacking”) is increasingly being used to improve health outcomes, enhance human capabilities, or fight against deadly diseases like COVID. Regalado reports that:

Nearly 200 covid-19 vaccines are in development and some three dozen are at various stages of human testing. But in what appears to be the first “citizen science” vaccine initiative, Estep and at least 20 other researchers, technologists, or science enthusiasts, many connected to Harvard University and MIT, have volunteered as lab rats for a do-it-yourself inoculation against the coronavirus. They say it’s their only chance to become immune without waiting a year or more for a vaccine to be formally approved.

Among those who’ve taken the DIY vaccine is George Church, the celebrity geneticist at Harvard University, who took two doses a week apart earlier this month. The doses were dropped in his mailbox and he mixed the ingredients himself.

Regalado notes that this is all happening despite legal and ethical questions:

By distributing directions and even supplies for a vaccine, though, the Radvac group is operating in a legal gray area. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires authorization to test novel drugs in the form of an investigational new drug approval. But the Radvac group did not ask the agency’s permission, nor did it get any ethics board to sign off on the plan.

Continue reading →

I was speaking at a virtual conference recently and was discussing my life’s work, which for 30 years has been focused on the importance of innovation and intellectual battles over what we mean progress. I whipped up a short list of some things I have written over just the past 5 years on this topic and thought I would just re-post them here:

UNDERSTANDING THE CHALLENGE WE FACE:

HOW WE MUST RESPOND = “Rational Optimism” / Right to Earn a Living / Permissionless Innovation

Continue reading →

Cheers to Post-Yoga BeersFew things unify people in America more than beer and liquor regulations. On one side you have the forces of repression, who either favor strong liquor taxes and regulations on moralistic grounds, or because they favor curtailing competition and choice for a variety of reasons. On the other side you have those of us looking to end the insanity of quasi-Prohibitionary rules that do nothing to boost public health but do plenty to annoy the living hell out of us (and cost us plenty). And the really interesting thing is that these two groups contain plenty of people of radically different political persecutions. Liquor regulations are the greatest destroyer of political partisanship ever!

For those of us who favor liberalization, as I write in my latest AIER column:

The good news is that evasive entrepreneurs and an increasingly technologically-empowered public will keep pushing back and hopefully whittle away at the continuing vestiges of Prohibition Era stupidity. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and when people want a drink, crafty entrepreneurs will usually find a way to deliver.

I talk a walk back through history and discuss how efforts to evade ridiculous liquor controls have been a longstanding feature of the American experience. People can be remarkably creative when seeking to circumvent silly rules–both before, during, and after Prohibition. Continue reading →

ImageI was very sad to learn that James Gattuso passed away this week. James was a friend and a wonderful mentor to me. I actually took his position at the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s, which he had vacated a few years prior to go to work in the White House. But after I left Heritage in 2000, James returned shortly thereafter to take back essentially the same position. We often joked that Heritage should just name the position after us and let us play musical chairs there forevermore! 

I learned so much from James through the years and regularly sought his advice on matters. In fact, when I first started this blog in 2004, James was one of the first three people I reached out to and asked to join. He contributed dozens of essays here. His entries read like newspaper dispatches from the frontlines of a battle. I always thought James would have made a terrific reporter, but his love of liberty made him want to fight for a cause. Hence, his life-long devotion to policy advocacy and the freedom to innovate in particular. 

But the most important thing I learned from working with James was how to properly conduct myself as an analyst and a human being. James was such a kind soul, and he always had time for everyone. Most importantly, he treated them with enormous respect, even when he violently disagreed with them. He listened carefully, digested arguments, and addressed them with a cool tenor, but also a powerful wit.

James famously developed a set of “10 Rules for Policy Analysts” that reflected much of that wisdom. His first rule: If the answer looks easy, you’ve missed something. There’s probably a reason no one has thought of it before.” His third: “Don’t assume everyone has read your paper, even if it is really, really good. Most people didn’t get past the first paragraph. Most of those only read the title.” There are many other gems like that in his Top 10 list. 

But his second rule is perhaps the most important piece of advice he ever gave me: “Don’t assume the other guy is evil. He may be, but will be on your side later.” That’s great advice because so many young people in the world of public policy (and it included me for awhile) tend to look at their opponents as nefarious-minded dimwits who are without hope or a moral compass.

As you age, you realize that’s nonsense, of course. But James taught me early on to avoid falling into this trap. I used to be pretty hot-headed in my early years as an analyst, but James would gently caution me about why I might be better off considering my intellectual opponents in a different light and granting them the same measure of respect that I hoped to garner from them myself. It’s a simple but powerful notion that is too often ignored–in all aspects of life. But James lived by that rule and everyone I know respected him enormously as a result. His advice and his example provide us with a model to live by.     

Thank you for everything you taught me, James. You will be missed, but never forgotten. 

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Does anyone remember Blockbuster and Hollywood Video? I assume most of you do, but wow, doesn’t it seem like forever ago when we actually had to drive to stores to get movies to watch at home? What a drag that was!

Yet, just 15 years ago, that was the norm and those two firms were the titans of video distribution, so much so that federal regulators at the Federal Trade Commission looked to stop their hegemony through antitrust intervention. But then those firms and whatever “market power” they possessed quickly evaporated as a wave of Schumpeterian creative destruction swept through video distribution markets. Both those firms and antitrust regulators had completely failed to anticipate the tsunami of technological and marketplace changes about to hit in the form of alternative online video distribution platforms as well as the rise of smartphones and robust nationwide mobile networks.

Today, this serves as a cautionary tale of what happens when regulatory hubris triumphs over policy humility, as Trace Mitchell and I explain in this new essay for National Review Online entitled, “The Crystal Ball of Antitrust Regulators Is Cracked.” As we note:

There is no discernable end point to the process of entrepreneurial-driven change. In fact, it seems to be proliferating rapidly. To survive, even the most successful companies must be willing to quickly dispense with yesterday’s successful business plans, lest they be steamrolled by the relentless pace of technological change and ever-shifting consumer demands. It is easy to understand why some people find it hard to imagine a time when Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google won’t be quite as dominant as they are today. But it was equally challenging 20 years ago to imagine that those same companies could disrupt the giants of that era.

Hopefully today’s policymakers will have a little more patience and trust competition and continued technological innovation to bring us still more wonderful video choices.

[OC] Blockbuster Video US store locations between 1986 and 2019 from r/dataisbeautiful

Here’s a new episode of the James Madison Institute “Policy Gone Viral” podcast in which my former Mercatus Center colleague Andrea O’Sullivan and I discuss the future of technological innovation and the public policies governing it. The video is embedded below or you can listen to just the audio here.