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.


Wishful thinking is a dangerous drug. Some pundits and policymakers believe that, if your intentions are pure and you have the “right” people in power, all government needs to do is sprinkle a little pixie dust (in the form of billions of taxpayer dollars) and magical things will happen.

Of course, reality has a funny way of throwing a wrench into the best-laid plans. Which brings me to the question I raise in a new 2-part series for Discourse magazine: Can governments replicate Silicon Valley everywhere?

In the first installment, I explore the track record of federal and state attempts to build tech clusters, science parks & “regional innovation hubs” using state subsidies and industrial policy. This is highly relevant today because of the huge new industrial policy push at the federal level is building on top of growing state and local efforts to create tech hubs, science parks, or various other types of industrial “clusters.

At the federal level, this summer, the Senate passed a 2,300-page industrial policy bill, the “United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021,” that included almost $10 billion over four years for a Department of Commerce-led effort to fund 20 new regional technology hubs, “in a manner that ensures geographic diversity and representation from communities of differing populations.” A similar proposal that is moving in the House, the “Regional Innovation Act of 2021,” proposes almost $7 billion over five years for 10 regional tech hubs. Meanwhile, the Biden administration also is pitching ideas for new high-tech hubs. In late July, the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration announced plans to allocate $1 billion in pandemic recovery funds to create or expand “regional industry clusters” as part of the administration’s new Build Back Better Regional Challenge. Among the possible ideas the agency said might win funding are an “artificial intelligence corridor,” an “agriculture-technology cluster” in rural coal counties, a “blue economy cluster” in coastal regions, and a “climate-friendly electric vehicle cluster.”

In my essay, I note that the economic literature on these efforts has been fairly negative, to put it mildly. Continue reading →

Financial Help for Gamblers: How to Get Find ReliefIn my latest column for The Hill, I consider that dangers of government gambling our tax dollars on risky industrial policy programs. I begin by noting:

Roll the dice at a casino enough times, and you are bound to win a few games. But knowing the odds are not in your favor, how much are you willing to risk losing by continuing to gamble?

This is the same issue governments confront when they gamble taxpayer dollars on industrial policy efforts, which can best be described as targeted and directed efforts to plan for specific future industrial outputs and outcomes. Throwing enough money at risky ventures might net a few wins, but at what cost? Could those resources have been better spent? And do bureaucrats really make better bets than private investors?

I continue on to note that, while the US is embarking on a major new industrial policy push, history does not provide us with a lot of hope regarding Uncle Sam’s betting record when he starts rolling those industrial policy dice. “How much tolerance should the public have for government industrial policy gambling?” I ask. I continue on:

Generally speaking, “basic” support (broad-based funding for universities and research labs) is wiser than “applied” (targeted subsidies for specific firms or sectors). With basic R&D funding, the chances of wasting resources on risky investments can be contained, at least as compared to highly targeted investments in unproven technologies and firms.

I also argue that “The riskiest bets on new technologies and sectors are better left to private investors,” and note how, “America’s venture capital industry remains the envy of the world because it continues to power world-beating advanced technology.” Accordingly, I conclude: Continue reading →

Discourse magazine has just published my latest essay, “‘Japan Inc.’ and Other Tales of Industrial Policy Apocalypse.” It is a short history of the hysteria surrounding the growth of Japan in the 1980s and early 1990s and its various industrial policy efforts. I begin by noting that, “American pundits and policymakers are today raising a litany of complaints about Chinese industrial policies, trade practices, industrial espionage and military expansion. Some of these concerns have merit. In each case, however, it is easy to find identical fears that were raised about Japan a generation ago.” I then walk through many of the leading books, opeds, movies, and other things from that past era to show how that was the case.

“Hysteria” is not too strong a word to use in this case. Many pundits and politicians were panicking about the rise of Japan economically and more specifically about the way Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) was formulating industrial policy schemes for industrial sectors in which they hoped to make advances. This resulted in veritable “MITI mania” here in America. “U.S. officials and market analysts came to view MITI with a combination of reverence and revulsion, believing that it had concocted an industrial policy cocktail that was fueling Japan’s success at the expense of American companies and interests,” I note. Countless books and essays were being published with breathless titles and predictions. I go through dozens of them in my essay. Meanwhile, the debate in policy circles and Capitol Hill even took on an ugly racial tinge, with some lawmakers calling the the Japanese “leeches.” and suggesting the U.S. should have dropped more atomic bombs on Japan during World War II. At one point, several members of Congress gathered on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol in 1987 to smash Japanese electronics with sledgehammers. Continue reading →

I was my pleasure to appear on the latest episode of the Dissed podcast to discuss economic liberty and the right to earn a living. The show was hosted by Anastasia Boden and Elizabeth Slattery of the Pacific Legal Foundation and it included legal scholars Hadley Arkes, Timothy Sandefur, and Clark Neily. I appear in the second half of the program.

I’ve spent many years writing about the relationship between innovation, entrepreneurialism, economic liberty, and the right to earn a living. My latest book (Evasive Entrepreneurs) and previous one (Permissionless Innovation) devoted considerable attention to this. But I tried to bring it all down to just a few hundred words in my 2018 essay, “The Right to Pursue Happiness, Earn a Living, and Innovate.”

I’ve reprinted that down below, but please make sure to click over to the Dissed page and listen to that excellent podcast.

Continue reading →

Over at Discourse magazine I’ve posted my latest essay on how conservatives are increasingly flirting with the idea of greatly expanding regulatory control of private speech platforms via some sort of common carriage regulation or new Fairness Doctrine for the internet. It begins:

Conservatives have traditionally viewed the administrative state with suspicion and worried about their values and policy prescriptions getting a fair shake within regulatory bureaucracies. This makes their newfound embrace of common carriage regulation and media access theory (i.e., the notion that government should act to force access to private media platforms because they provide an essential public service) somewhat confusing. Recent opinions from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as well as various comments and proposals of Sen. Josh Hawley and former President Trump signal a remarkable openness to greater administrative control of private speech platforms.

Given the takedown actions some large tech companies have employed recently against some conservative leaders and viewpoints, the frustration of many on the right is understandable. But why would conservatives think they are going to get a better shake from state-regulated monopolists than they would from today’s constellation of players or, more importantly, from a future market with other players and platforms?

I continue on to explain why conservatives should be skeptical of the administrative state being their friend when it comes to the control of free speech. I end by reminding conservatives what President Ronald Reagan said in his 1987 veto of legislation to reestablish the Fairness Doctrine: “History has shown that the dangers of an overly timid or biased press cannot be averted through bureaucratic regulation, but only through the freedom and competition that the First Amendment sought to guarantee.”

Read more at Discourse, and down below you will find several other recent essays I’ve written on the topic.

Over at Discourse magazine, my Mercatus Center colleague Matt Mitchell and I have a new essay on, “Industrial Policy is a Very Old, New Idea.” We argue that, despite having a long history of disappointments and failures, that isn’t stopping many policymakers from proposing it industrial policies again. We compare national industrial policy efforts alongside state-based economic development policies, noting their many similarities. In both cases, the crucial issue comes down to targeting versus generality in terms of how policymakers go about encouraging innovation and economic growth. We note how:

The building blocks of the general approach—a mix of broadly applicable tax, spending, regulatory and legal rules—are often rejected because they seem less exciting than targeting specific companies or industries for help. Pundits and policymakers are fond of using machine-like metaphors to suggest they can “fine-tune” innovation or “dial-in” economic development according to a precise formula they believe they have concocted. They also savor the attention that goes along with ribbon-cutting ceremonies and the big headlines often generated by political targeting efforts.

We discuss the spectrum of economic development options (depicted in chart below) in more detail and explain the many pitfalls associated with some of the most highly targeted efforts. “The predicament for policymakers is that, while it is wiser to focus on the generalized approaches, the temptation will remain strong to jump to targeted gambles that may grab headlines but are far more risky and costly,” we argue. Head over to Discourse to read the entire thing.

Here’s a new animated explainer video that I narrated for the Federalist Society’s Regulatory Transparency Project. The 3-minute video discusses how earlier “tech giants” rose and fell as technological innovation and new competition sent them off to what the New York Times once appropriately called “The Hall of Fallen Giants.” It’s a continuing testament to the power of “creative destruction” to upend and reorder markets, even as many pundits insist that there’s no possibility change can happen.

This is an important lesson for us to remember today, as I noted in the recent editorial for The Hill about why, “Open-ended antitrust is an innovation killer“: Continue reading →

[Last updated 9/4/21]

Industrial Policy is a red-hot topic once again with many policymakers and pundits of different ideological leanings lining up to support ambitious new state planning for various sectors — especially 5G, artificial intelligence, and semiconductors. A remarkably bipartisan array of people and organizations are advocating for government to flex its muscle and begin directing more spending and decision-making in various technological areas. They all suggest some sort of big plan is needed, and it is not uncommon for these industrial policy advocates to suggest that hundreds of billions will need to be spent in pursuit of those plans.

Others disagree, however, and I’ll be using this post to catalog some of their concerns on an ongoing basis. Some of the criticisms listed here are portions of longer essays, many of which highlight other types of steps that governments can take to spur innovative activities. Industrial policy is an amorphous term with many definitions of a broad spectrum of possible proposals. Almost everyone believes in some form of industrial policy if you define the term broadly enough. But, as I argued in a September 2020 essay “On Defining ‘Industrial Policy,” I believe it is important to narrow the focus of the term such that we can continue to use the term in a rational way. Toward that end, I believe a proper understanding of industrial policy refers to targeted and directed efforts to plan for specific future industrial outputs and outcomes.

The collection of essays below is merely an attempt to highlight some of the general concerns about the most ambitious calls for expansive industrial policy, many of which harken back to debates I was covering in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I first started a career in policy analysis. During that time, Japan and South Korea were the primary countries of concern cited by industrial policy advocates. Today, it is China’s growing economic standing that is fueling calls for ambitious state-led targeted investments in “strategic” sectors and technologies. To a lesser extent, grandiose European industrial policy proposals are also prompting new US counter-proposals.

All this activity is what has given rise to many of the critiques listed below. If you have suggestions for other essays I might add to this list, please feel free to pass them along. FYI: There’s no particular order here.

Continue reading →

In our latest feature for Discourse magazine, Connor Haaland and I explore the question, “Should the U.S. Copy China’s Industrial Policy?” We begin by noting that:

Calls for revitalizing American industrial policy have multiplied in recent years, with many pundits and policymakers suggesting that the U.S. should consider taking on Europe and China by emulating their approaches to technological development. The goal would be to have Washington formulate a set of strategic innovation goals and mobilize government planning and spending around them.

We continue on to argue that what most of these advocates miss is that:

China’s targeting efforts are often antithetical to both innovation and liberty, and involve plenty of red tape and bureaucracy. China has become a remarkably innovative country for many reasons, including its greater tolerance for risk-taking, even as the Chinese Communist Party continues to pump resources into strategic sectors. But most Chinese innovation is permissible only insomuch as it furthers the party’s objectives, a strategy the U.S. obviously wouldn’t want to copy.

We discuss the problems associated with some of those Chinese efforts as well as proposed US responses, like the recently released 756 page report from the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. The report takes an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to state direction for new AI-related efforts and spending. While that report says the government now must “drive change through top-down leadership” in order to “win the AI competition that is intensifying strategic competition with China,” we argue that there could be some serious pitfalls with top-down, high price tag approaches.

Jump over to the Discourse site to read the full essay, as well as our previous essay, which asked, “Can European-Style Industrial Policies Create Tech Supremacy?” These two essay build on the research Connor and I have been doing on global artificial intelligence policies in the US, China, and the EU. In a much longer forthcoming white paper, we explore both the regulatory and industrial policy approaches for AI being adopted in the US, China, and the EU. Stay tuned for more.

Over at Discourse magazine, Connor Haaland and I have an new essay (“Can European-Style Industrial Policies Create Tech Supremacy?”) examining Europe’s effort to develop national champion in a variety of tech sectors using highly targeted industrial policy efforts. The results have not been encouraging, we find.

Thus far, however, the Europeans don’t have much to show for their attempts to produce home-grown tech champions. Despite highly targeted and expensive efforts to foster a domestic tech base, the EU has instead generated a string of industrial policy failures that should serve as a cautionary tale for U.S. pundits and policymakers, who seem increasingly open to more government-steered innovation efforts.

We examine case studies in internet access, search, GPS, video services, and the sharing economy. We then explore newly-proposed industrial policy efforts aimed at developing their domestic AI market. We note how:

no amount of centralized state planning or spending will be able to overcome Europe’s aversion to technological risk-taking and disruption. The EU’s innovation culture generally values stability—of existing laws, institutions and businesses—over disruptive technological change. […]

There are no European versions of Microsoft, Google or Apple, even though Europeans obviously demand and consume the sort of products and services those U.S.-based companies provide. It’s simply not possible given the EU’s current regulatory regime.

It seems unlikely that Europe will have much better luck developing home-grown champions in AI and robotics using this same playbook. “American academics and policymakers with an affinity for industrial policy might want to consider a model other than Europe’s misguided combination of fruitless state planning and heavy-handed regulatory edicts,” we conclude.

Head over to Discourse to read the entire essay.