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.


Profectus is an excellent new online magazine featuring essays and interviews on the intersection of academic literature, public policy, civilizational progress, and human flourishing. The Spring 2022 edition of the magazine features a “Progress Roundtable” in which six different scholars were asked to contribute their thoughts on three general questions:
  1. What is progress?
  2. What are the most significant barriers holding back further progress?
  3. If those challenges can be overcome, what does the world look like in 50 years?

I was honored to be asked by Clay Routledge to contribute answers to those questions alongside others, including: Steven Pinker (Harvard University), Jason Crawford (Roots of Progress), Matt Clancy (Institute for Progress), Marian Tupy (Human​Progress​.org), James Pethokoukis (AEI). I encourage you to jump over the roundtable and read all their excellent responses. I’ve included my answers down below:

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On Thursday, June 9, it was my great pleasure to return to my first work office at the Adam Smith Institute in London and give a talk on the future of innovation policy and the governance of artificial intelligence. James Lawson, who is affiliated with the ASI and wrote a wonderful 2020 study on AI policy, introduced me and also offered some remarks. Among the issues discussed:

  • What sort of governance vision should govern the future of innovation generally and AI in particular: the “precautionary principle” or “permissionless innovation”?
  • Which AI sectors are witnessing the most exciting forms of innovation currently?
  • What are the fundamental policy fault lines in the AI policy debates today?
  • Will fears about disruption and automation lead to a new Luddite movement?
  • How can “soft law” and decentralized governance mechanism help us solve pressing policy concerns surrounding AI?
  • How did automation affect traditional jobs and sectors?
  • Will the European Union’s AI Act become a global model for regulation and will it have a “Brussels Effect” in terms of forcing innovators across the world to come into compliance with EU regulatory mandates?
  • How will global innovation arbitrage affect the efforts by governments in Europe and elsewhere to regulate AI innovation?
  • Can the common law help address AI risk? How is the UK common law system superior to the US legal system?
  • What do we mean by “existential risk” as it pertains to artificial intelligence?

I have a massive study in the works addressing all these issues. In the meantime, you can watch the video of my London talk here. And thanks again to my friends at the Adam Smith Institute for hosting!

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[This is a draft of a section of a forthcoming study on “A Flexible Governance Framework for Artificial Intelligence,” which I hope to complete shortly. I welcome feedback. I have also cross-posted this essay at Medium.]

Debates about how to embed ethics and best practices into AI product design is where the question of public policy defaults becomes important. To the extent AI design becomes the subject of legal or regulatory decision-making, a choice must be made between two general approaches: the precautionary principle or the proactionary principle.[1] While there are many hybrid governance approaches in between these two poles, the crucial issue is whether the initial legal default for AI technologies will be set closer to the red light of the precautionary principle (i.e., permissioned innovation) or to the green light of the proactionary principle (i.e., (permissionless innovation). Each governance default will be discussed.

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Just FYI, the James Madison Institute will be hosting its “2022 Tech and Innovation Summit” on Thursday, September 15 and Friday, September 16 in Coral Gables, Florida. I’m honored to be included among the roster of speakers announced so far, which includes:

  • Ajit Pai, Former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission
  • Adam Thierer, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University
  • Will Duffield, Cato Institute
  • Utah State Representative Cory Maloy
  • Dane Ishihara, Director of Utah’s Office of Regulatory Relief

Registration info is here.

Why is it illegal in many states to purchase an electric vehicle directly from a manufacturer? In this new Federalist Society podcast, Univ. of Michigan law school professor Daniel Crane and I examine how state protectionist barriers block choice and innovation for no good reason whatsoever. The only group that benefits from these protectionist, anti-consumer direct sales bans are local car dealers who don’t want the competition.

Additional Reading:

Corbin Barthold invited me on Tech Freedom’s “Tech Policy Podcast” to discuss the history of antitrust and competition policy over the past half century. We covered a huge range of cases and controversies, including: the DOJ’s mega cases against IBM & AT&T, Blockbuster and Hollywood Video’s derailed merger, the Sirius-XM deal, the hysteria over the AOL-Time Warner merger, the evolution of competition in mobile markets, and how we finally ended that dreaded old MySpace monopoly!

What does the future hold for Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix? Do antitrust regulators at the DOJ or FTC have enough to mount a case against these firms? Which case is most likely to have legs?

Corbin and I also talked about the of progress more generally and the troubling rise of more and more Luddite thinking on both the left and right. I encourage you to give it a listen:

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) has kicked off a new project called “Digital Platforms and American Life,” which will bring together a variety of scholars to answer the question: How should policymakers think about the digital platforms that have become embedded in our social and civic life? The series, which is being edited by AEI Senior Fellow Adam J. White, highlights how the democratization of knowledge and influence in the Internet age comes with incredible opportunities but also immense challenges. The contributors to this series will approach these issues from various perspectives and also address different aspects of policy as it pertains to the future of technological governance.

It is my honor to have the lead paper in this new series. My 19-page essay is entitled, Governing Emerging Technology in an Age of Policy Fragmentation and Disequilibrium, and it represents my effort to concisely tie together all my writing over the past 30 years on governance trends for the Internet and related technologies. The key takeaways from my essay are:

  • Traditional governance mechanisms are being strained by modern technological and political realities. Newer technologies, especially digital ones, are developing at an ever-faster rate and building on top of each other, blurring lines between sectors.
  • Congress has failed to keep up with the quickening pace of technological change. It also continues to delegate most of its constitutional authority to agencies to deal with most policy concerns. But agencies are overwhelmed too. This situation is unlikely to change, creating a governance gap.
  • Decentralized governance techniques are filling the gap. Soft law—informal, iterative, experimental, and collaborative solutions—represents the new normal for technological governance. This is particularly true for information sectors, including social media platforms, for which the First Amendment acts as a major constraint on formal regulation anyway.
  • No one-size-fits-all tool can address the many governance issues related to fast-paced science and technology developments; therefore, decentralized governance mechanisms may be better suited to address newer policy concerns.

My arguments will frustrate many people of varying political dispositions because I adopt a highly pragmatic approach to technological governance. Continue reading →

If you haven’t yet had the chance to check out the new Progress Forum, I encourage you to do so. It’s a discussion group for progress studies and all things related to it. The Forum is sponsored by The Roots of Progress. Even though the Forum is still in pre-launch phase, there are already many interesting threads worth checking out. I was my honor to contribute one of the first on the topic, “Where is ‘Progress Studies’ Going?” It’s an effort to sort through some of the questions and challenges facing the Progress Studies movement in terms of focus and philosophical grounding. I thought I would just reproduce the essay here, but I encourage you to jump over to the Progress Forum to engage in discussion about it, or the many other excellent discussions happening there on other issues.

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As I note in my latest regular column for The Hill, it seems like everyone these days is talking about the importance of America “building again.” For example, take a look at this compendium of essays I put together where scholars and pundits have been making the case for “building again” in various ways and contexts. It would seem that the phrase is on everyone’s lips. “These calls include many priorities,” I note, “but what unifies them is the belief that the nation needs to develop new innovations and industries to improve worker opportunities, economic growth and U.S. global competitive standing.”

What I fear, however, is that “building again” has become more of a convenient catch line than anything else. It seems like few people are willing to spell out exactly what it will take to get that started. My new column suggests that the most important place to start is “to cut back the thicket of red tape and stifling bureaucratic procedures that limit the productiveness of the American workforce.” I cite recent reports and data documenting the enormous burden that regulatory accumulation imposes on American innovators and workers. I then discuss how to get reforms started at all levels of government to get the problem under control and help us start building again in earnest. Jump over to The Hill to read the entire essay.

An important new book launched this week in Europe on issues related to innovation policy and industrial policy. “Questioning the Entrepreneurial State: Status-quo, Pitfalls, and the Need for Credible Innovation Policy” (Springer, 2022) brings together more than 30 scholars who contribute unique chapters to this impressive volume. It was edited by Karl Wennberg of the Stockholm School of Economics and Christian Sandström of the Jönköping (Sweden) International Business School.

As the title of this book suggests, the authors are generally pushing back against the thesis found in Mariana Mazzucato’s book The Entrepreneurial State (2011). That book, like many other books and essays written recently, lays out a romantic view of industrial policy that sees government as the prime mover of markets and innovation. Mazzucato calls for “a bolder vision for the State’s dynamic role in fostering economic growth” and innovation. She wants the state fully entrenched in technological investments and decision-making throughout the economy because she believes that is the best way to expand the innovative potential of a nation.

The essays in Questioning the Entrepreneurial State offer a different perspective, rooted in the realities on the ground in Europe today. Taken together, the chapters tell a fairly consistent story: Despite the existence of many different industrial policy schemes at the continental and country level, Europe isn’t in very good shape on the tech and innovation front. The heavy-handed policies and volumes of regulations imposed by the European Union and its member states have played a role in that outcome. But these governments have simultaneously been pushing to promote innovation using a variety of technocratic policy levers and industrial policy schemes. Despite all those well-intentioned efforts, the EU has struggled to keep up with the US and China in most important modern tech sectors. Continue reading →