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.


Here’s a new Federalist Society Regulatory Transparency “Tech Roundup” podcast about driverless cars, artificial intelligence and the growth of “soft law” governance for both. The 34-minute podcast features a conversation between Caleb Watney and me about new Trump Administration AI guidelines as well as the Department of Transportation’s new “Version 4.0” guidance for automated vehicles.

This podcast builds on my recent essay, “Trump’s AI Framework & the Future of Emerging Tech Governance” as well as an earlier law review article, “Soft Law for Hard Problems: The Governance of Emerging Technologies in an Uncertain Future.”

This week, the Trump Administration proposed a new policy framework for artificial intelligence (AI) technologies that attempts to balance the need for continued innovation with a set of principles to address concerns about new AI services and applications. This represents an important moment in the history of emerging technology governance as it creates a policy vision for AI that is generally consistent with earlier innovation governance frameworks established by previous administrations.

Generally speaking, the Trump governance vision for AI encourages regulatory humility and patience in the face of an uncertain technological future. However, the framework also endorses a combination of “hard” and “soft” law mechanisms to address policy concerns that have already been raised about developing or predicted AI innovations.

AI promises to revolutionize almost every sector of the economy and can potentially benefit our lives in numerous ways. But AI applications also raise a number of policy concerns, specifically regarding safety or fairness. On the safety front, for example, some are concerned about the AI systems that control drones, driverless cars, robots, and other autonomous systems. When it comes to fairness considerations, critics worry about “bias” in algorithmic systems that could deny people jobs, loans, or health care, among other things.

These concerns deserve serious consideration and some level of policy guidance or else the public may never come to trust AI systems, especially if the worst of those fears materialize as AI technologies spread. But how policy is formulated and imposed matters profoundly. A heavy-handed, top-down regulatory regime could undermine AI’s potential to improve lives and strengthen the economy. Accordingly, a flexible governance framework is needed and the administration’s new guidelines for AI regulation do a reasonably good job striking that balance. Continue reading →

[Cross-posted to Medium.]

The spread of “sanctuary cities”—local governments that resist federal laws or regulations in some fashion, and typically for strongly-held moral reasons—is one of the most interesting and controversial governance developments of recent decades. Unfortunately, the concept receives only a selective defense from people when it fits their narrow political objectives, such as sanctuary movements for immigration and gun rights.

But there is broader case to be made for sanctuaries in many different contexts as a way to encourage experiments in alternative governance models and just let people live lives of their choosing. The concept faces many challenges in practice, however, and I remain skeptical that sanctuary cities will ever scale up and become a widespread governance phenomenon. There’s just too much for federal officials to lose and they likely will crush any particular sanctuary movement that gains serious steam.

Sanctuary Cities as Political Civil Disobedience

First, let’s think about what local officials are really doing when they declare themselves a sanctuary. (Because they can be formed by city, county, or state governments, I will just use “sanctuaries” as a shorthand throughout this essay.)

Academics use the term “rule departure” when referencing “deliberate failures, often for conscientious reasons, to discharge the duties of one’s office.” [Joel Feinberg, “Civil Disobedience in the Modern World,” in Humanities in Society, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1979, p 37.] In this sense, sanctuary cities could be viewed as a type of collective civil disobedience by public officials because these governance arrangements are typically defended on moral grounds and represent an active form of resistance to policies imposed by higher-ups. Continue reading →

In a new essay for the Mercatus Bridge, I ask, “How Many Lives Are Lost Due to the Precautionary Principle?” The essay builds on two recent case studies of how the precautionary principle can result in unnecessary suffering and deaths. The first case study involves the Japanese government’s decision in 2011 to entirely abandon nuclear energy following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. The second involves Golden Rice, a form of rice that was genetically engineered to contain beta-carotene, which helps combat vitamin A deficiency. Anti-GMO resistance among environmental activists and regulatory officials held up the diffusion of this miracle food. New reports and books now document how these precautionary decisions diminished human welfare instead of improving it. I encourage you to jump over to the Bridge and read the entire story.

I concluded the essay by noting that, “It is time to reject the simplistic logic of the precautionary principle and move toward a more rational, balanced approach to the governance of technologies. Our lives and well-being depend upon it.” Some read that as a complete rejection of all preemptive regulation. I certainly was not arguing that, so let me clarify a few things. Continue reading →

2019 Doing Business North America Report CoverOne of the keys to improving the standard of living for citizens is to make sure it isn’t too difficult for them to form new businesses or find good jobs. Unfortunately, some governments make that process harder than it should be. San Francisco serves as a prime example. An important new report just out from Arizona State University proves that.

“Doing Business North America,” is a wide-ranging comparison of six types of business regulations in Canada, Mexico and the United States. The almost 200-page report was released by the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty, a joint endeavor of the W. P. Carey School of Business and the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership. The effort was spearheaded by my old colleague Stephen Slivinski and a team of other scholars and students at the Center.

The report is a major undertaking that examines how 115 North American cities rank overall, as measured by six categories: starting a business, employing workers, getting electricity, registering property, paying taxes, and resolving insolvency. Among all U.S. cities, San Francisco ranks dead last with a score of 59.04 out of a 100. Of the 115 cities evaluated in Canada, Mexico, and the U.S., San Fran ranked 77th. By comparison, Oklahoma City ranked first in overall ease of doing business with a score of 85.22.

Shockingly, things appear ready to get a lot worse for the citizens of San Francisco. In my latest column for the American Institute for Economic Research, I discuss the city’s newly proposed Office of Emerging Technology.  This new bureaucracy, which would be within the city’s public works department, would impose a new permitting system on anyone looking to launch new technologies that might somehow use public rights-of-way, such as sidewalks and roads. Innovators who fail to pursue and receive the appropriate permission slips will face civil and criminal penalties. Continue reading →

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Over the last three decades, our experts at Rent-Seeking Consultants have dedicated themselves to the mission of advancing narrow interests at the expense of public welfare. We have done so by creatively exploiting laws and regulations that — while often implemented with the very best of intentions in mind — we recognized could be converted into a tool to advantage the few at the expense of the many.

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Our “Raising Rivals’ Costs Using the GDPR” report continues our latest line of new products, which aim to take Europe’s bold new privacy regulatory regime and convert it into a rent-seeker’s paradise. Our previous report outlined, “How to Pretend Compliance Costs Will Destroy Your Big Company, While Also Letting Your Shareholders Know It is Actually an Amazing Way to Crush the Competition.” Continue reading →

The endless apocalyptic rhetoric surrounding Net Neutrality and many other tech policy debates proves there’s no downside to gloom-and-doomism as a rhetorical strategy. Being a techno-Jeremiah nets one enormous media exposure and even when such a person has been shown to be laughably wrong, the press comes back for more. Not only is there is no penalty for hyper-pessimistic punditry, but the press actually furthers the cause of such “fear entrepreneurs” by repeatedly showering them with attention and letting them double-down on their doomsday-ism. Bad news sells, for both the pundit and the press.

But what is most remarkable is that the press continues to label these preachers of the techno-apocalypse as “experts” despite a track record of failed predictions. I suppose it’s because, despite all the failed predictions, they are viewed as thoughtful & well-intentioned. It is another reminder that John Stuart Mill’s 1828 observation still holds true today: “I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.”

Additional Reading:

by Andrea O’Sullivan & Adam Thierer

This essay originally appeared on The Bridge on September 25, 2019.

It is quickly becoming one of the iron laws of technology policy that by attempting to address one problem (like privacy, security, safety, or competition), policymakers often open up a different problem on another front. Trying to regulate to protect online safety, for example, might give rise to privacy concerns, or vice versa. Or taking steps to address online privacy through new regulations might create barriers to new entry, thus hurting online competition.

In a sense, this is simply a restatement of the law of unintended consequences. But it seems to be occurring with greater regularity in the technology policy today, and it serves as another good reminder why humility is essential when considering new regulations for fast-moving sectors.

Consider a few examples.

Privacy vs security & competition 

Many US states and the federal government are considering data privacy regulations in the vein of the European Union’s wide-reaching General Data Privacy Regulation (GDPR). But as early experiences with the GDPR and various state efforts can attest, regulations aimed at boosting consumer privacy can often butt against other security and competition concerns. Continue reading →

by Adam Thierer and Trace Mitchell

This essay originally appeared on The Washington Examiner on September 12, 2019.

You won’t find President Trump agreeing with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on many issues, but the need for occupational licensing reform is one major exception. They, along with many other politicians and academics both Left and Right, have identified how state and local “licenses to work” restrict workers’ opportunities and mobility while driving up prices for consumers.

Of course, not everybody has to agree with high-profile Democrats and Republicans, but let’s at least welcome the chance to discuss something important without defaulting to our partisan bunkers.

This past week, for example, ThinkProgress published an article titled “Koch Brothers’ anti-government group promotes allowing unlicensed, untrained cosmetologists.” Centered around an Americans for Prosperity video highlighting the ways in which occupational licensing reform could lower some of the barriers that prevent people from bettering their lives, the article painted a picture of an ideologically driven, right-wing movement.

In reality, it’s anything but that. Continue reading →

Originally published on 9/9/19 at The Bridge as, “Beware Calls for Government to ‘Save the Press‘”

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by Adam Thierer & Andrea O’Sullivan

Anytime someone proposes a top-down, government-directed “plan for journalism,” we should be a little wary. Journalism should not be treated like it’s a New Deal-era public works program or a struggling business sector requiring bailouts or an industrial policy plan.

Such ideas are both dangerous and unnecessary. Journalism is still thriving in America, and people have more access to more news content than ever before. The news business faces serious challenges and upheaval, but that does not mean central planning for journalism makes sense.

Unfortunately, some politicians and academics are once again insisting we need government action to “save journalism.” Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (D-VT) recently penned an op-ed for the Columbia Journalism Review that adds media consolidation and lack of union representation to the parade of horrors that is apparently destroying journalism. And a recent University of Chicago report warns that “digital platforms” like Facebook and Google “present formidable new threats to the news media that market forces, left to their own devices, will not be sufficient” to continue providing high-quality journalism.

Critics of the current media landscape are quick to offer policy interventions. “The Sanders scheme would add layers of regulatory supervision to the news business,” notes media critic Jack Shafer. Sanders promises to prevent or rollback media mergers, increase regulations on who can own what kinds of platforms, flex antitrust muscles against online distributors, and extend privileges to those employed by media outlets. The academics who penned the University of Chicago report recommend public funding for journalism, regulations that “ensure necessary transparency regarding information flows and algorithms,” and rolling back liability protections for platforms afforded through Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Both plans feature government subsidies, too. Sen. Sanders proposes “taxing targeted ads and using the revenue to fund nonprofit civic-minded media” as part of a broader effort “to substantially increase funding for programs that support public media’s news-gathering operations at the local level.” The Chicago plan proposed a taxpayer-funded $50 media voucher that each citizen will then be able to spend on an eligible media operation of their choice. Such ideas have been floated before and the problems are still numerous. Apparently, “saving journalism” requires that media be placed on the public dole and become a ward of the state. Socializing media in order to save it seems like a bad plan in a country that cherishes the First Amendment. Continue reading →