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.


In a new essay in The Dallas Morning News (“Licensing restrictions for health care workers need to be flexible to fight coronavirus“), Trace Mitchell and I discuss recent efforts to reform occupational licensing restrictions for health care workers to help fight the coronavirus. Trace and I have written extensively about the need for licensing flexibility over the past couple of years, but it is needed now more than ever. Luckily, some positive reforms are now underway.

We highlight efforts in states like Massachusetts and Texas to reform their occupational licensing rules in response to the crisis, as well as federal reforms aimed at allowing reciprocity across state lines. We conclude by noting that:

It should not take a crisis of this magnitude for policymakers to reconsider the way we prevent fully qualified medical professionals from going where they are most needed. But that moment is now upon us. More leaders would be wise to conduct a comprehensive review of regulatory burdens that hinder sensible, speedy responses to the coronavirus crisis.

If nothing else, the relaxation of these rules should give us a better feel for how necessary strict licensing requirements truly are. Chances are, we will learn just how costly the regulations have been all along.
Read the entire piece here.

I was pleased to see the American Psychological Association’s new statement slowly reversing course on misguided past statements about video games and acts of real-world violence. As Kyle Orland reports in Ars Technica, the APA has clarified its earlier statement on this relationship between watching video game depictions of violence and actual youth behavior. The APA’s old statement said that evidence “confirms [the] link between playing violent video games and aggression.”  But the APA has come around and now says that, “there is insufficient scientific evidence to support a causal link between violent video games and violent behavior.” More specifically, the APA says: 

The following resolution should not be misinterpreted or misused by attributing violence, such as mass shootings, to violent video game use. Violence is a complex social problem that likely stems from many factors that warrant attention from researchers, policy makers and the public. Attributing violence to violent video gaming is not scientifically sound and draws attention away from other factors.

This is a welcome change of course because the APA’s earlier statements were being used by politicians and media activists who favored censorship of video games. Hopefully that will no longer happen.

“Monkey see, monkey do” theories of media exposure leading to acts of real-world violence have long been among the most outrageously flawed theories in the fields of psychology and media studies.  All the evidence points the opposite way, as I documented a decade ago in a variety of studies. (For a summary, see my 2010 essay, “More on Monkey See-Monkey Do Theories about Media Violence & Real-World Crime.”)

In fact, there might even be something to the “cathartic effect hypothesis,” or the idea first articulated by Aristotle (“katharsis”) that watching dramatic portrayals of violence could lead to “the proper purgation of these emotions.” (See my 2010 essay on this, “Video Games, Media Violence & the Cathartic Effect Hypothesis.”)

Of course, this doesn’t mean that endless exposure to video game or TV and movie violence is a good thing. Prudence and good parenting are still essential. Some limits are smart. But the idea that a kid playing or watching violent act will automatically become violent themselves was always nonsense. It’s time we put that theory to rest. Thanks to the new APA statement, we are one step closer.

P.S. I recently penned an essay about my long love affair with video games that you might find entertaining: “Confessions of a ‘Vidiot’: 50 Years of Video Games & Moral Panics

On the latest Institute for Energy Research podcast, I joined Paige Lambermont to discuss:

  • the precautionary principle vs. permissionless innovation;
  • risk analysis trade-offs;
  • the future of nuclear power;
  • the “pacing problem”;
  • regulatory capture;
  • evasive entrepreneurialism;
  • “soft law”;
  • … and why I’m still bitter about losing the 6th grade science fair!

Our discussion was inspired by my recent essay, “How Many Lives Are Lost Due to the Precautionary Principle?”

The race for artificial intelligence (AI) supremacy is on with governments across the globe looking to take the lead in the next great technological revolution. As they did before during the internet era, the US and Europe are once again squaring off with competing policy frameworks.

In early January, the Trump Administration announced a new light-touch regulatory framework and then followed up with a proposed doubling of federal R&D spending on AI and quantum computing. This week, the European Union Commission issued a major policy framework for AI technologies and billed it as “a European approach to excellence and trust.”

It seems the EU basically wants to have its cake and eat it too by marrying up an ambitious industrial policy with a precautionary regulatory regime. We’ve seen this show before. Europe is doubling down on the same policy regime it used for the internet and digital commerce. It did not work out well for the continent then, and there are reasons to think it will backfire on them again for AI technologies. Continue reading →

ImageCongress has become a less important player in the field of technology policy. Why did that happen, and what are the ramifications for technological governance efforts going forward?

I’ve spent almost 30 years covering technology policy. There was a time in my life when I spent almost all my time as a policy analyst preoccupied with developments in the federal legislative arena. I lived in the trenches of Capitol Hill and interacted with lawmakers and their staff morning, noon, and night.

In recent years, however, I have spent very little time focused on the Legislative Branch because it has effectively become a non-actor on technology policy. It is not that congressional lawmakers stopped caring about tech policy. Interest actually remains quite high—perhaps higher than ever before. Congress also continues to introduce lots of bills, host plenty of hearings, and issue mountains of press releases related to tech policy issues.

Nonetheless, all that interest and activity has not really translated into much important legislation. Continue reading →

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 →