What We’re 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 →

I was speaking at a virtual conference recently and was 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 whipped up a short list of some things I have written over just the past 5 years on this topic and thought I would just re-post them here:

UNDERSTANDING THE CHALLENGE WE FACE:

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

Continue reading →

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 →

My latest book, Evasive Entrepreneurs and the Future of Governance How Innovation Improves Economies and Governments, is now live. Here’s the launch essay and online launch event. Also, here’s a summary of 10 major arguments advanced in the book. I will have more to say about the book in coming weeks, but here is a list of 13 key terms discussed in the text. This list appears at the end of the introduction to the book:

  1. Compliance paradox: The situation in which heightened legal or regulatory efforts fail to reverse unwanted behavior and instead lead to increased legal evasion and additional enforcement problems.
  2. Demosclerosis: Growing government dysfunction brought on by the inability of public institutions to adapt to change, especially technological change.
  3. Evasive entrepreneurs: Innovators who do not always conform to social or legal norms.
  4. Free innovation: Bottom-up, noncommercial forms of innovation that often take on an evasive character. Free innovation is sometimes called “grassroots” or “household” innovation or “social entrepreneurialism.” Even though it is typically noncommercial in character, free innovation often involves regulatory entrepreneurialism and technological civil disobedience.
  5. Innovation arbitrage: The movement of ideas, innovations, or operations to jurisdictions that provide legal and regulatory environments most hospitable to entrepreneurial activity. It can also be thought of as a form of jurisdictional shopping and can be facilitated by competitive federalism.
  6. Innovation culture: The various social and political attitudes and pronouncements toward innovation, technology, and entrepreneurial activities that, taken together, influence the innovative capacity of a culture or nation.
  7. Pacing problem: A term that generally refers to the inability of legal or regulatory regimes to keep up with the intensifying pace of technological change.
  8. Permissionless innovation: The general notion that “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” As a policy vision, it refers to the idea that experimentation with new technologies and innovations should generally be permitted by default.
  9. Precautionary principle: The practice of crafting public policies to control or limit innovations until their creators can prove that they will not cause any harm or disruptions.
  10. Regulatory entrepreneurs: Evasive entrepreneurs who set out to intentionally challenge and change the law through their innovative activities. In essence, policy change is part of their business model.
  11. Soft law: Informal, collaborative, and constantly evolving governance mechanisms that differ from hard law in that they lack the same degree of enforceability.
  12. Technological civil disobedience: The technologically enabled refusal of individuals, groups, or businesses to obey certain laws or regulations because they find them offensive, confusing, time-consuming, expensive, or perhaps just annoying and irrelevant.
  13. Technologies of freedom: Devices and platforms that let citizens openly defy (or perhaps just ignore) public policies that limit their liberty or freedom to innovate. Another term with the same meaning is “technologies of resistance.”

I’m pleased to announce that the Cato Institute has just published my latest book, Evasive Entrepreneurs and the Future of Governance How Innovation Improves Economies and Governments. Here’s my introductory launch essay about the book as well as the online launch event. And here’s a list of 13 key terms used throughout the book.

In coming days and weeks I will be occasionally blogging about different arguments made in the 368-page book, but here’s a quick summary of some of the key points I make in the book. These ten passages are pulled directly from the text:

  1. “the freedom to innovate is essential to human betterment for each of us individually and for civilization as a whole. That freedom deserves to be taken more seriously today.”
  2. “Entrepreneurialism and technological innovation are the fundamental drivers of economic growth and of the incredible advances in the everyday quality of life we have enjoyed over time. They are the key to expanding economic opportunities, choice, and mobility.”
  3. “Unfortunately, many barriers exist to expanding innovation opportunities and our entrepreneurial efforts to help ourselves, our loved ones, and others. Those barriers include occupational licensing rules, cronyism-based industrial protectionist schemes, inefficient tax schemes, and many other layers of regulatory red tape at the federal, state, and local levels. We should not be surprised, therefore, when citizens take advantage of new technological capabilities to evade some of those barriers in pursuit of their right to earn a living, to tinker with or try doing new things, or just to learn about the world and serve it better.”
  4. “Evasive entrepreneurs rely on a strategy of permissionless innovation in both the business world and the political arena. They push back against ‘the Permission Society,’ or the convoluted labyrinth of permits and red tape that often encumber entrepreneurial activities.” 
  5. “We should be willing to tolerate a certain amount of such outside-the-box thinking because entrepreneurialism expands opportunities for human betterment by constantly replenishing the well of important, life-enhancing ideas and applications.”
  6. “we should better appreciate how creative acts and the innovations they give rise to can help us improve government by keeping public policies fresh, sensible, and in line with common sense and the consent of the governed.”
  7. “Evasive entrepreneurialism is not so much about evading law altogether as it is about trying to get interesting things done, demonstrating a social or an economic need for new innovations in the process, and then creating positive leverage for better results when politics inevitably becomes part of the story. By acting as entrepreneurs in the political arena, innovators expand opportunities for themselves and for the public more generally, which would not have been likely if they had done things by the book.”
  8. “Dissenting through innovation can help make public officials more responsive to the people by reining in the excesses of the administrative state, making government more transparent and accountable, and ensuring that our civil rights and economic liberties are respected.”
  9. “In an age when many of the constitutional limitations on government power are being ignored or unenforced, innovation itself can act as a powerful check on the power of the state and can help serve as a protector of important human liberties.”
  10. “Lawmakers and regulators need to consider a balanced response to evasive entrepreneurialism that is rooted in the realization that technology creators and users are less likely to seek to evade laws and regulations when public policies are more in line with common sense.”

Continue reading →

To commemorate its 40th anniversary, the Mercatus Center asked its scholars to share the books that have been most influential or formative in the development of their analytical approach and worldview. Head over to the Mercatus website to check out my complete write-up of my Top 5 picks for books that influenced my thinking on innovation policy progress studies. But here is a quick summary:

#1) Samuel C. Florman – “The Existential Pleasures of Engineering” (1976). His book surveys “antitechnologists” operating in several academic fields & then proceeds to utterly demolish their claims with remarkable rigor and wit.

#2) Aaron Wildavsky – “Searching for Safety” (1988). The most trenchant indictment of the “precautionary principle” ever penned. His book helped to reshape the way risk analysts would think about regulatory trade-offs going forward.

#3) Thomas Sowell – “A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles” (1987). It’s like the Rosetta Stone of political theory; the key to deciphering why people think the way they do about human nature, economics, and politics.  

#4) Virginia Postrel – “The Future and Its Enemies” (1998). Postrel reconceptualized the debate over progress as not Left vs. Right but rather dynamism— “a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition”—versus the stasis mentality. More true now than ever before.

#5) Calestous Juma – “Innovation and Its Enemies” (2016). A magisterial history of earlier battles over progress. Juma reminds us of the continued importance of “oiling the wheels of novelty” to constantly replenish the well of important ideas and innovations.

The future needs friends because the enemies of innovative dynamism are voluminous and vociferous. It is a lesson we must never forget. Thanks to these five authors and their books, we never will.

Finally, the influence of these scholars is evident on every page of my last book (“Permissionless Innovation”) and my new one (“Evasive Entrepreneurs and the Future of Governance: How Innovation Improves Economies and Governments”). I thank them all!

To read Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction (2016) is to experience another in a line of progressive pugilists of the technological age. Where Tim Wu took on the future of the Internet and Evgeny Morozov chided online slactivism, O’Neil takes on algorithms, or what she has dubbed weapons of math destruction (WMD).

O’Neil’s book came at just the right moment in 2016. It sounded the alarm about big data just as it was becoming a topic for public discussion. And now, two years later, her worries seem prescient. As she explains in the introduction,

Big Data has plenty of evangelists, but I’m not one of them. This book will focus sharply in the other direction, on the damage inflicted by WMDs and the injustice they perpetuate. We will explore harmful examples that affect people at critical life moments: going to college, borrowing money, getting sentenced to prison, or finding and holding a job. All of these life domains are increasingly controlled by secret models wielding arbitrary punishments.

O’Neil is explicit about laying out the blame at the feet of the WMDs, “You cannot appeal to a WMD. That’s part of their fearsome power. They do not listen.” Yet, these models aren’t deployed and adopted in a frictionless environment. Instead, they “reflect goals and ideology” as O’Neil readily admits. Where Weapons of Math Destruction falters is that it ascribes too much agency to algorithms in places, and in doing so misses the broader politics behind algorithmic decision making. Continue reading →

Reason magazine recently published my review of Franklin Foer’s new book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. My review begins as follows:

If you want to sell a book about tech policy these days, there’s an easy formula to follow.

First you need a villain. Google and Facebook should suffice, but if you can throw in Apple, Amazon, or Twitter, that’s even better. Paint their CEOs as either James Bond baddies bent on world domination or naive do-gooders obsessed with the quixotic promise of innovation.

Finally, come up with a juicy Chicken Little title. Maybe something like World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. Wait—that one’s taken. It’s the title of Franklin Foer’s latest book, which follows this familiar techno-panic template almost perfectly.

The book doesn’t break a lot of new ground; it serves up the same old technopanicky tales of gloom-and-doom that many others have said will befall us unless something is done to save us. But Foer’s unique contribution is to unify many diverse strands of modern tech criticism in one tome, and then amp up the volume of panic about it all. Hence, the “existential” threat in the book’s title. I bet you didn’t know the End Times were so near!

Read the rest of my review over at Reason. And, if you care to read some of my other essays on technopanics through the ages, here’s a compendium of them.