What We’re 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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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 →

Almost every argument against technological innovation and progress that we hear today was identified and debunked by Samuel C. Florman a half century ago. Few others since him have mounted a more powerful case for the importance of innovation to human flourishing than Florman did throughout his lifetime.

Chances are you’ve never heard of him, however. As prolific as he was, Florman did not command as much attention as the endless parade of tech critics whose apocalyptic predictions grabbed all the headlines. An engineer by training, Florman became concerned about the growing criticism of his profession throughout the 1960s and 70s. He pushed back against that impulse in a series of books over the next two decades, including most notably: The Existential Pleasures of Engineering (1976), Blaming Technology: The Irrational Search for Scapegoats (1981), and The Civilized Engineer (1987). He was also a prolific essayist, penning hundreds of articles for a wide variety of journals, magazines, and newspapers beginning in 1959. He was also a regular columnist for MIT Technology Review for sixteen years.

Florman’s primary mission in his books and many of those essays was to defend the engineering profession against attacks emanating from various corners. More broadly, as he noted in a short autobiography on his personal website, Florman was interested in discussing, “the relationship of technology to the general culture.”

Florman could be considered a “rational optimist,” to borrow Matt Ridley’s notable term[1] for those of us who believe, as I have summarized elsewhere, that there is a symbiotic relationship between innovation, economic growth, pluralism, and human betterment.[2] Rational optimists are highly pragmatic and base their optimism on facts and historical analysis, not on dogmatism or blind faith in any particular viewpoint, ideology, or gut feeling. But they are unified in the belief that technological change is a crucial component of moving the needle on progress and prosperity.

Florman’s unique contribution to advancing rational optimism came in the way he itemized the various claims made by tech critics and then powerfully debunked each one of them. Continue reading →

This is a compendium of readings on “progress studies,” or essays and books which generally make the case for technological innovation, dynamism, economic growth, and abundance. I will update this list as additional material of relevance is brought to my attention.   

Recent Essays

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Discourse magazine has just published my review of Where Is My Flying Car?, by J. Storrs Hall, which I argue is the most important book on technology policy written in the past quarter century. Hall perfectly defines what is at stake if we fail to embrace a pro-progress policy vision going forward. Hall documents how a “Jetsons” future was within our grasp, but it was stolen away from us. What held back progress in key sectors like transportation, nanotech & energy was anti-technological thinking and the overregulation that accompanies it. “[T]he Great Stagnation was really the Great Strangulation,” he argues. The culprits: negative cultural attitudes toward innovation, incumbent companies or academics looking to protect their turf, litigation-happy trial lawyers, and a raft of risk-averse laws and regulations.

Hall coins the term “the Machiavelli Effect” to identify why many people simultaneously fear the new and different, and they also want to protect whatever status quo they benefit from (or at least feel comfortable with). He builds on this passage from Niccolò Machiavelli’s classic 1532 study of political power, “The Prince”: Continue reading →

Albert Hirschman and the Social Sciences: A Memorial Roundtable – Humanity JournalThis month’s Cato Unbound symposium features a conversation about the continuing relevance of Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, fifty years after its publication. It was a slender by important book that has influenced scholars in many different fields over the past five decades. The Cato symposium features a discussion between me and three other scholars who have attempted to use Hirschman’s framework when thinking about modern social, political, and technological developments.

My lead essay considers how we might use Hirschman’s insights to consider how entrepreneurialism and innovative activities might be reconceptualized as types of voice and exit. Response essays by Mikayla NovakIlya Somin, and Max Borders broaden the discussion to highlight how to think about Hirschman’s framework in various contexts. And then I returned to the discussion this week with a response essay of my own attempting to tie those essays together and extend the discussion about how technological innovation might provide us with greater voice and exit options going forward. Each contributor offers important insights and illustrates the continuing importance of Hirschman’s book.

I encourage you to jump over to Cato Unbound to read the essays and join the conversations in the comments.

 

My thanks to Dr. Wayne Brough, President at Innovation Defense Foundation, for reviewing my new book, Evasive Entrepreneurs and the Future of Governance, over at the AIER website. Brough says of the book:

Adam Thierer has created a thoughtful and surprisingly timely book examining the interplay between entrepreneurs, innovation, and regulators. Thoughtful because he tackles tough questions of innovation and governance in a dynamic market. Timely because the coronavirus pandemic has forced policymakers to seriously reconsider the cumulative regulatory burden and how it may impede the economic recovery. Whether it’s V-shaped or a slower, longer recovery, decades worth of regulatory underbrush has taken its toll on economic activity while providing few, if any, benefits.

He also does a nice job summarizing the key theme of both this latest book and my previous one on Permissionless Innovation:

Thierer takes to task the anti-growth mentality and the political movements against innovation and growth, highlighting the long tradition of hostility toward innovation, from the early 19th-century Luddites up through today’s technophobes advocating restrictions on new technologies such as artificial intelligence. Much of this is driven by the precautionary principle, which Thierer views as an inappropriate guide for regulators. The precautionary principle is a highly risk-averse standard that provides regulators an excuse to stifle innovation for the slightest perceived hazard.

But Dr. Brough rightly takes me to task for not addressing intellectual property issues in either book. He’s right. Continue reading →

[Updated: March 2022]

I was speaking at a conference recently and discussing my life’s work, which for 30 years has been focused on the importance of innovation and intellectual battles over what we mean progress. I put together up a short list of some things I have written over the last few years on this topic and thought I would just re-post them here. I will try to keep this regularly updated, at least for a few years.

UNDERSTANDING THE CHALLENGE WE FACE:

HOW WE MUST RESPOND = “Rational Optimism” / Right to Earn a Living / Permissionless Innovation

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Marc Andreessen is interviewed by Sriram Krishan in his new newsletter, The Observer Effect, and asked what motivates him to support technological innovation and “to go read up on a new topic every day” related to tech and progress. His answer is inspirational and perfectly encapsulates why I also have made technological progress the focus of my life’s work:

I am a deep believer in – after learning a lot over the years about economic history and of cultural history – that technology really is the driver. There were basically millennia of just subsistence farming industry and all of a sudden, there was this vertical takeoff a few hundred years ago. And quality of life exploded around the world. Not evenly but starting in Europe and expanding out. It’s basically all technology. It’s always the printing press, it’s the internet and on and on. And you get this incredible upward trajectory. We have the potential over the course of the next century or over the next few centuries to really dramatically advance and have life be better for virtually everybody. Technology is quite literally the lever for being able to take natural resources and able to make something better out of them.

And so it’s just it’s the most interesting and by far the most useful and the most beneficial thing I can think of doing.

Amen, brother! I devoted my last two books (Permissionless Innovation and Evasive Entrepreneurs) and all my life’s work, to proving that exact point. Also, I really like Andreessen’s definition of technology as, “the lever for being able to take natural resources and able to make something better out of them.” I’ve added that to my running compendium, “Defining Technology,” which features various definitions of technology.

 

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 →