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 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.

Our motto: Where others see good intentions, we see good opportunities!

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 →

Originally published on the AIER blog on 9/8/19 as “The Worst Regulation Ever Proposed.”

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Imagine a competition to design the most onerous and destructive economic regulation ever conceived. A mandate that would make all other mandates blush with embarrassment for not being burdensome or costly enough. What would that Worst Regulation Ever look like?

Unfortunately, Bill de Blasio has just floated a few proposals that could take first and second place prize in that hypothetical contest. In a new Wired essay, the New York City mayor and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate explains, “Why American Workers Need to Be Protected From Automation,” and aims to accomplish that through a new agency with vast enforcement powers, and a new tax.

Taken together, these ideas represent one of the most radical regulatory plans any America politician has yet concocted.

Politicians, academics, and many others have been panicking over automation at least since the days when the Luddites were smashing machines in protest over growing factory mechanization. With the growth of more sophisticated forms of robotics, artificial intelligence, and workplace automation today, there has been a resurgence of these fears and a renewed push for sweeping regulations to throw a wrench in the gears of progress. Mayor de Blasio is looking to outflank his fellow Democratic candidates for president with an anti-automation plan that may be the most extreme proposal of its kind. Continue reading →

Today marks the 15th anniversary of the launch of the Technology Liberation Front. This blog has evolved through the years and served as a home for more than 50 writers who have shared their thoughts about the intersection of technological innovation and public policy.

Many TLF contributors have moved on to start other blogs or write for other publications. Others have gone into other professions where they simply can’t blog anymore. Still others now just publish their daily musings on Twitter, which has had a massive substitution effect on long-form blogging more generally. In any event, I’m pleased that so many of them had a home here at some point over the past 15 years.

What has unified everyone who has written for the TLF is (1) a strong belief in technological innovation as a method of improving the human condition and (2) a corresponding concern about impediments to technological change. Our contributors might best be labeled “rational optimists,” to borrow Matt Ridley’s phrase, or “dynamists,” to use Virginia Postrel’s term. In a recent essay, I sketched out the core tenets of a dynamist, rational optimist worldview, arguing that we:

  • believe there is a symbiotic relationship between innovation, economic growth, pluralism, and human betterment, but also acknowledge the various challenges sometimes associated with technological change;
  • look forward to a better future and reject overly nostalgic accounts of some supposed “good ‘ol days” or bygone better eras;
  • base our optimism on facts and historical analysis, not on blind faith in any particular viewpoint, ideology, or gut feeling;
  • support practical, bottom-up solutions to hard problems through ongoing trial-and-error experimentation, but are not wedded to any one process to get the job done;
  • appreciate entrepreneurs for their willingness to take risks and try new things, but do not engage in hero worship of any particular individual, organization, or particular technology.

Applying that vision, the contributors here through the years have unabashedly defended a pro-growth, pro-progress, pro-freedom vision, but they have also rejected techno-utopianism or gadget-worship of any sort. Rational optimists are anti-utopians, in fact, because they understand that hard problems can only be solved through ongoing trial and error, not wishful thinking or top-down central planning.

Continue reading →

This essay was originally published on the AIER blog on August 8, 2019.

In a new Atlantic essay, Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen suggest that, “We Need a New Science of Progress,” which, “would study the successful people, organizations, institutions, policies, and cultures that have arisen to date, and it would attempt to concoct policies and prescriptions that would help improve our ability to generate useful progress in the future.” Collison and Cowen refer to this project as Progress Studies.

Is such a field of study possible, and would it really be a “science”? I think the answer is yes, but with some caveats. Even if it proves to be an inexact science, however, the effort is worth undertaking. 

Thinking about Progress

Progress Studies is a topic I have spent much of my life thinking and writing about, most recently in my book, Permissionless Innovation as well as a new paper on “Technological Innovation and Economic Growth,” co-authored with James Broughel. My work has argued that nations that are open to risk-taking, trial-and-error experimentation, and technological dynamism (i.e., “permissionless innovation”) are more likely to enjoy sustained economic growth and prosperity than those rooted in precautionary principle thinking and policies (i.e., prior restraints on innovative activities). A forthcoming book of mine on the future of entrepreneurialism and innovation will delve even deeper into these topics and address criticisms of technological advancement.

Continue reading →