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 webinar video of a discussion I had recently with Kevin Gomez and his colleague at the Institute for Economic Inquiry at Creighton University’s School of Business.  We discussed my new book, Evasive Entrepreneurs and the Future of Governance: How Innovation Improves Economies and Governments and the future of “permissionless innovation” more generally. My thanks to Kevin and his team at Creighton for inviting me to join them for a fun discussion. Topics include:

  • why evasive entrepreneurialism is expanding
  • the growth of innovation arbitrage
  • the difference between technologies that are “born free” versus “born in captivity”
  • the nature of “the pacing problem” and what it means for policy
  • the problem with “set-it-and-forget-it” & “build-and-freeze” regulations
  • technological risk and the potential for “soft law” governance
  • sensible legislative reforms to advance permissionless innovation (such as “the innovator’s presumption” and “the sunsetting imperative”)
  • how the COVID crisis potentially opens the Overton Window to much-needed policy change

President Trump and his allies have gone to war with social media sites and digital communications platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Google. Decrying supposed anti-conservative “bias,” Trump has even floated an Executive Order aimed at “Preventing Online Censorship,” that entails many new forms of government meddling with these private speech platforms. Section 230 is their crosshairs and First Amendment restraints are being thrown to the wind.

Various others have already documented the many legal things wrong with Trump’s call for greater government oversight of private speech platforms. I want to focus on something slightly different here: The surprising ideological origins of what Trump and his allies are proposing. Because for those of us who are old-timers and have followed communications and media policy for many decades, this moment feels like deja vu all over again, but with the strange twist that supposed “conservatives” are calling for a form of communications collectivism that used to be the exclusive province of hard-core Leftists.

To begin, the truly crazy thing about President Trump and some conservatives saying that social media should be regulated as public forums is not just that they’re abandoning free speech rights, it’s that they’re betraying property rights, too. Treating private media like a “public square” entails a taking of private property. Amazingly, Trump and his followers have taken over the old “media access movement” and given it their own spin. Continue reading →

DIY medicineMargaret Talbot has written an excellent New Yorker essay entitled, “The Rogue Experimenters,” which documents the growth of the D.I.Y.-bio movement. This refers to the organic, bottom-up, citizen science movement, or “leaderless do-ocracy” of tinkerers, as she notes. I highly recommend you check it out.

As I noted in my new book on Evasive Entrepreneurs and the Future of Governance, “DIY health services and medical devices are on the rise thanks to the combined power of open-source software, 3D printers, cloud computing, and digital platforms that allow information sharing between individuals with specific health needs. Average citizens are using these new technologies to modify their bodies and abilities, often beyond the confines of the law.”

Talbot discusses many of the same examples I discuss in my book, including:

  • the Four Thieves Vinegar collective, which devised instructions for building its own version of the EpiPen;
  • e-nable, an international collective of thirty thousand volunteers, designs and 3-D-prints prosthetic hands and arms (and which has, more recently, distributed more than fifty thousand face shields in more than twenty-five countries.);
  • GenSpace and other community biohacking labs; and
  • Open Insulin and Open Artificial Pancreas System.

I like the way Talbot compares these movements to the hacker and start-up culture of the Digital Revolution: Continue reading →

Here’s a video chat I did today with Americans for Prosperity – Virginia. My thanks to Benjamin Knotts for hosting the discussion. We talked about my recent book (Evasive Entrepreneurs) and my last one (Permissionless Innovation). We also discussed my new proposal with Matt Mitchell and Patrick McLaughlin to create “Fresh Start Initiatives” to address rules suspended during the COVID crisis.  Watch the 30 min video here:

Matt RidleyThere are few things more exciting to innovation policy geeks that than the week a new Matt Ridley book drops. Thankfully, that time is upon us once again. This week, Ridley’s latest book, How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom, is being released. I can’t wait to dig in.

This weekend, the Wall Street Journal published an essay condensed from the book entitled, “Innovation Can’t Be Forced, but It Can Be Quashed.” Here are some of the highlights from Ridley’s piece:

Innovation relies upon freedom to experiment and try new things, which requires sensible regulation that is permissive, encouraging and quick to give decisions. By far the surest way to rediscover rapid economic growth when the pandemic is over will be to study the regulatory delays and hurdles that have now been hastily swept aside to help innovators in medical devices and therapies, and to see whether such reforms could be applied to other parts of the economy too.

Dealing with Covid-19 has forcibly reminded governments of the value of innovation. But if we are to get faster vaccines and treatments—and better still, more innovation across all fields in the future—then innovators need to be freed from the shackles that hold them back.

These are crucial point, and ones I discuss in the launch essay and the afterward of my new book, Evasive Entrepreneurs and the Future of Governance. Alas, as I pointed out in that launch essay and my last book on Permissionless Innovation, a great many barriers stand in the way of the freedom to experiment and try new things. As Ridley points out: Continue reading →

I’m making the opening chapter of my new book, Evasive Entrepreneurs and the Future of Governance: How Innovation Improves Economies and Governments, available here. Also here’s the launch essay and the event launch video, which discuss how the themes discussed throughout the book have become even more visible during the coronavirus crisis.

Also, here are some lists of 10 major themes from the book13 key terms found in the book, and 5 innovation policy scholars who inspired my thinking. Reminder: this book is a sequel to my previous book, Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom.

I hope you will consider buying Evasive Entrepreneurs after reading this opening chapter.

I really liked this new essay, “Innovation is thriving in the fight against Covid-19,” by Norman Lewis over at Spiked, a UK-based publication. In it, he makes several important points similar to themes discussed in my book launch essay last week (“Evasive Entrepreneurialism and Technological Civil Disobedience in the Midst of a Pandemic.”) Lewis begins by noting that:

There is nothing like a crisis to concentrate the mind. And the Covid-19 catastrophe has certainly done this. It has speeded up latent trends and posed new questions. The issue of our technologically informed capacity to solve problems is just one example.

He continues on to argue:

a crisis like Covid-19 will necessarily pose new urgent questions that could not have been anticipated. New initiatives will rise to meet these. Pre-existing skills, knowledge, technologies and attitudes will always be the starting point of new problem-solving quests. Where and how we focus attention will, in part, be based on prior cultural assumptions and existing technologies, and also on the novelty of the problem to be solved.

Lewis discusses how innovative minds are pushing back against archaic regulatory barriers, business models and government regulations. As he nicely summarizes:

Unimagined solutions are being pushed while a more open attitude towards experimentation, risk-taking and side-stepping onerous and costly regulation is starting to emerge. Human needs are breaking down yesterday’s precautionary approaches.

That last line really resonated with me because it’s a major theme that runs throughout my new book, “Evasive Entrepreneurs and the Future of Governance: How Innovation Improves Economies and Governments.” As I summarized in my book launch essay:

Eventually, people take notice of how regulators and their rules encumber entrepreneurial activities, and they act to evade them when public welfare is undermined. Working around the system becomes inevitable when the permission society becomes so completely dysfunctional and counterproductive.

This was happening before the coronavirus outbreak, but the crisis has supercharged this phenomenon. Evasive entrepreneurs are taking advantage of the growth of new devices and platforms that let citizens circumvent (or perhaps just ignore) public policies that limit innovative efforts. These can include common tools like smartphones, computers, and various new interactive platforms, as well as more specialized technologies like cryptocurrencies, private drones, immersive technologies (like virtual reality), 3D printers, the “Internet of Things,” and sharing economy platforms and services. But that list just scratches the surface and the public is increasingly using these new technological capabilities to assert themselves and push back against laws and regulations that defy common sense and hold back progress.

Lawmakers and regulators need to consider a balanced response to evasive entrepreneurialism that is rooted in the realization that technology creators and users are less likely to seek to evade laws and regulations when public policies are more in line with common sense. Yesterday’s heavy-handed approaches that are rooted in the Precautionary Principle will need to be reformed to make sure progress can happen. 

Read my book to find out more!

 

Here’s yesterday’s full launch event video for the release of my new book, Evasive Entrepreneurs and the Future of Governance: How Innovation Improves Economies and Governments. My thanks to Matthew Feeney, Director of the Project on Emerging Technologies at the Cato Institute, for hosting the discussion and sorting through audience questions. The video is below and some of the topics we discussed are listed down below:

* innovation culture
* charter cities, innovation hubs & competitive federalism
* the pacing problem
* technological determinism
* innovation arbitrage
* existential risk
* the Precautionary Principle vs. Permissionless Innovation
* responsible innovation
* drones, facial recognition & surveillance tech
* why privacy & cybersecurity bills never pass
* regulatory accumulation
* applying Moore’s Law to government
* technological civil disobedience
* 3D printing
* biohacking & the “Right to Try” movement
* technologies of resistance
* “born free” technologies vs. “born in captivity” tech
* regulatory capture
* agency threats & “regulation by raised eyebrow”
* soft law vs. hard law
* autonomous systems & “killer robots”!

[Originally published on the Cato Institute blog.]

A pandemic is no time for bad governance. As the COVID-19 crisis intensified, bureaucrats and elected officials slumbered. Government regulations prevented many in the private sector from helping with response efforts. The result was a sudden surge of evasive entrepreneurialism and technological civil disobedience. With institutions and policies collapsing around them, many people took advantage of cutting‐​edge technological capabilities to evade public policies that were preventing practical solutions from emerging.

Examples were everywhere. Distilleries started producing hand sanitizers to address shortages while average folks began sharing do‐​it‐​yourself sanitizer recipes online. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) looked to modify hand sanitizer guidelines quickly to allow for it, but few really cared because those rules weren’t going to stop them. Gray markets in face masks, medical face shields, and respirators developed. Some people and organizations worked together to make medical devices using off‐​the‐​shelf hardware and open source software. More simply, others just fired up sewing machines to make masks—and then, faced with an emerging public health consensus, the guidance from the federal government shifted dramatically: where formerly ordinary people were instructed not to buy or use masks, within a matter of days, the policy reversed, and all were encouraged to make and use cloth protective masks. Continue reading →

My latest book, Evasive Entrepreneurs and the Future of Governance How Innovation Improves Economies and Governments, is now live. Here’s the launch essay and online launch event. Also, here’s a summary of 10 major arguments advanced in the book. I will have more to say about the book in coming weeks, but here is a list of 13 key terms discussed in the text. This list appears at the end of the introduction to the book:

  1. Compliance paradox: The situation in which heightened legal or regulatory efforts fail to reverse unwanted behavior and instead lead to increased legal evasion and additional enforcement problems.
  2. Demosclerosis: Growing government dysfunction brought on by the inability of public institutions to adapt to change, especially technological change.
  3. Evasive entrepreneurs: Innovators who do not always conform to social or legal norms.
  4. Free innovation: Bottom-up, noncommercial forms of innovation that often take on an evasive character. Free innovation is sometimes called “grassroots” or “household” innovation or “social entrepreneurialism.” Even though it is typically noncommercial in character, free innovation often involves regulatory entrepreneurialism and technological civil disobedience.
  5. Innovation arbitrage: The movement of ideas, innovations, or operations to jurisdictions that provide legal and regulatory environments most hospitable to entrepreneurial activity. It can also be thought of as a form of jurisdictional shopping and can be facilitated by competitive federalism.
  6. Innovation culture: The various social and political attitudes and pronouncements toward innovation, technology, and entrepreneurial activities that, taken together, influence the innovative capacity of a culture or nation.
  7. Pacing problem: A term that generally refers to the inability of legal or regulatory regimes to keep up with the intensifying pace of technological change.
  8. Permissionless innovation: The general notion that “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” As a policy vision, it refers to the idea that experimentation with new technologies and innovations should generally be permitted by default.
  9. Precautionary principle: The practice of crafting public policies to control or limit innovations until their creators can prove that they will not cause any harm or disruptions.
  10. Regulatory entrepreneurs: Evasive entrepreneurs who set out to intentionally challenge and change the law through their innovative activities. In essence, policy change is part of their business model.
  11. Soft law: Informal, collaborative, and constantly evolving governance mechanisms that differ from hard law in that they lack the same degree of enforceability.
  12. Technological civil disobedience: The technologically enabled refusal of individuals, groups, or businesses to obey certain laws or regulations because they find them offensive, confusing, time-consuming, expensive, or perhaps just annoying and irrelevant.
  13. Technologies of freedom: Devices and platforms that let citizens openly defy (or perhaps just ignore) public policies that limit their liberty or freedom to innovate. Another term with the same meaning is “technologies of resistance.”