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 →

I recently joined Rep. Dan Crenshaw on his Hold These Truths podcast to discuss, “What’s Wrong with Industrial Policy.” We chatted for 25 minutes about a wide range of issues related to the the growing push for grandiose industrial policy schemes in the US, including the massive new 3,000-page, $350 billion “COMPETES Act” legislation that recently passed in the House and which will soon be conferenced with a Senate bill that already passed.

On the same day this podcast was released this week, I also had a new op-ed appear in The Hill on “The Coming Industrial Policy Hangover.” In both that essay and the podcast with Rep. Crenshaw, I stress that, beyond all the other problems with these new industrial policy measures, no one is talking about the fiscal cost of it all. As I note:

In the rush to pass legislation, we’ve barely heard a peep about the $250-$350 billion price tag. This follows a massive splurge of recent government borrowing, which led to the U.S. national debt hitting another lamentable new record: $30 trillion. China already owns over $1 trillion of that debt, making one wonder if we’re really countering China by adopting a massive, new and unfunded industrial policy that they will end up financing indirectly.

Read my oped for more details and for a deeper dive of what’s wrong with the bills, see my earlier essay here on “Thoughts on the America COMPETES Act: The Most Corporatist & Wasteful Industrial Policy Ever.”

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Are you a student or young scholar looking for opportunities to advance your studies and future career opportunities? The Mercatus Center at George Mason University can help. I’ve been with Mercatus for 12 years now and the most rewarding part of my job has always been the chance to interact with students and up-and-coming scholars who are hungry to learn more and make their mark on the world. Of course, learning and researching takes time and money. Mercatus works with students and scholars in many different fields to help them advance their careers by offering them some financial assistance to make their dreams easier to achieve. 

The Mercatus Center’s Academic & Student Programs team (ASP) are the ones that make all this happen. ASP is currently accepting applications for various fellowships running through the 2022-2023 academic year (for students) and 2023 calendar year (for our early-career scholars).  ASP recruits, trains, and supports graduate students who have gone on to pursue careers in academia, government, and public policy. Additionally, ASP supports scholars pursuing research on the cutting edge of academia. Mercatus fellows have an opportunity to learn from and interact with an impressive collection of Mercatus faculty, affiliated scholars, and visitors.

ASP offers several different fellowship programs to suit every need. Our fellows explore and discuss the foundations of political economy and public policy and pursue research on pressing issues. For graduate students who follow this blog and are generally interested in the big questions surrounding innovation, we especially encourage you to consider the Frédéric Bastiat Fellowship which will be premiering its innovation study track for the 2022-2023 academic year. I usually am an instructor at the session on tech and innovation policy. 

Here are more details on all the academic fellowships that Mercatus currently offers. Please pass along this information to any students or early-career scholars who might be interested.

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Gabrielle Bauer, a Toronto-based medical writer, has just published one of the most concise explanations of what’s wrong with the precautionary principle that I have ever read. The precautionary principle, you will recall, generally refers to public policies that limit or even prohibit trial-and-error experimentation and risk-taking. Innovations are restricted until their creators can prove that they will not cause any harms or disruptions. In an essay for The New Atlantis entitled, “Danger: Caution Ahead,” Bauer uses the world’s recent experiences with COVID lockdowns as the backdrop for how society can sometimes take extreme caution too far, and create more serious dangers in the process. “The phrase ‘abundance of caution’ captures the precautionary principle in a more literary way,” Bauer notes. Indeed, another way to look at it is through the prism of the old saying, “better to be safe than sorry.” The problem, she correctly observes, is that, “extreme caution comes at a cost.” This is exactly right and it points to the profound trade-offs associated with precautionary principle thinking in practice.

In my own writing about the problems associated with the precautionary principle (see list of essays at bottom), I often like to paraphrase an ancient nugget of wisdom from St. Thomas Aquinas, who once noted in his Summa Theologica that, if the highest aim of a captain were merely to preserve their ship, then they would simply keep it in port forever. Of course, that is not the only goal of a captain has. The safety of the vessel and the crew is essential, of course, but captains brave the high seas because there are good reasons to take such risks. Most obviously, it might be how they make their living. But historically, captains have also taken to the seas as pioneering explorers, researchers, or even just thrill-seekers.

This was equally true when humans first decided to take to the air in balloons, blimps, airplanes, and rockets. A strict application of the precautionary principle would have instead told us we should keep our feet on the ground. Better to be safe than sorry! Thankfully, many brave souls ignored that advice and took the heavens in the spirit of exploration and adventure. As Wilbur Wright once famously said, “If you are looking for perfect safety, you would do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds.” Needless to say, humans would have never mastered the skies if the Wright brothers (and many others) had not gotten off the fence and taken the risks they did. Continue reading →

This week, I hosted another installment of the “Tech Roundup,” for the Federalist Society’s Regulatory Transparency Project. This latest 30-minute episode was on, “Autonomous Vehicles: Where Are We Now?” I was joined by Marc Scribner, a transportation policy expert with the Reason Foundation.  We provided an quick update of where federal and state policy for AVs stands as of early 2022 and offered some thoughts about what might happen next in the Biden Administration Department of Transportation (DOT). Some experts believe that the DOT could be ready to start aggressively regulating driverless car tech or AV companies, especially Elon Musk’s Tesla. Tune in to hear what Marc and I have to say about all that and more.

Related Reading:

 

On Tuesday, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, posted the text of the “America Creating Opportunities for Manufacturing, Pre-Eminence in Technology and Economic Strength Act of 2022,” or “The America COMPETES Act.” As far as industrial policy measures go, the COMPETES Act is one of the most ambitious and expensive central planning efforts in American history. It represents the triumph of top-down, corporatist, techno-mercantilist thinking over a more sensible innovation policy rooted in bottom-up competition, entrepreneurialism, private investment, and free trade.

Unprecedented Planning & Spending

First, the ugly facts: The full text of the COMPETES Act weighs in at a staggering 2,912 pages. A section-by-section “summary” of the measure takes up 109 pages alone. Even the shorter “fact sheet” for the bill is 20 pages long. It is impossible to believe that anyone in Congress has read every provision of this bill. It will be another case of having “to pass the bill so you can find out what’s in it,” as Speaker Pelosi once famously said about another mega-measure.

Of course, a mega bill presents major opportunities for lawmakers to sneak in endless gobs of pork and unrelated policy measures they can’t find any other way to get through Congress. The Senate already passed a similar 2,600-page companion measure last summer, “The U.S. Innovation and Competition Act.” Lawmakers loaded up that measure with so much pork and favors for special interests that Sen. John N. Kennedy (R-La.) labelled the effort an “orgy of spending porn.” Like that effort, the new COMPETES Act includes $52 billion to boost domestic semiconductor production as well as $45 billion in grants and loans to address supply chain issues.

But there are billions allocated for other initiatives, as well as countless provisions addressing other technologies and sectors. The list is seemingly endless and includes: 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 →

On December 13th, I will be participating in an Atlas Network panel on, “Big Tech, Free Speech, and Censorship: The Classical Liberal Approach.” In anticipation of that event, I have also just published a new op-ed for The Hill entitled, “Left and right take aim at Big Tech — and the First Amendment.” In this essay, I expand upon that op-ed and discuss the growing calls from both the Left and the Right for a variety of new content regulations. I then outline the classical liberal approach to concerns about free speech platforms more generally, which ultimately comes down to the proposition that innovation and competition are always superior to government regulation when it comes to content policy.

In the current debates, I am particularly concerned with calls by many conservatives for more comprehensive governmental controls on speech policies enforced by various private platforms, so I will zero in on those efforts in this essay. First, here’s what both the Left and the Right share in common in these debates: Many on both sides of the aisle desire more government control over the editorial decisions made by private platforms. They both advocate more political meddling with the way private firms make decisions about what types of content and communications are allowed on their platforms. In today’s hyper-partisan world,” I argue in my Hill column, “tech platforms have become just another plaything to be dominated by politics and regulation. When the ends justify the means, principles that transcend the battles of the day — like property rights, free speech and editorial independence — become disposable. These are things we take for granted until they’ve been chipped away at and lost.”

Despite a shared objective for greater politicization of media markets, the Left and the Right part ways quickly when it comes to the underlying objectives of expanded government control. As I noted in my Hill op-ed:

there is considerable confusion in the complaints both parties make about “Big Tech.” Democrats want tech companies doing more to limit content they claim is hate speech, misinformation, or that incites violence. Republicans want online operators to do less, because many conservatives believe tech platforms already take down too much of their content.

This makes life very lonely for free speech defenders and classical liberals. Usually in the past, we could count on the Left to be with us in some free speech battles (such as putting an end to “indecency” regulations for broadcast radio and television), while the Right would be with us on others (such as opposition to the “Fairness Doctrine,” or similar mandates). Today, however, it is more common for classical liberals to be fighting with both sides about free speech issues.

My focus is primarily on the Right because, with the rise of Donald Trump and “national conservatism,” there seems to be a lot of soul-searching going on among conservatives about their stance toward private media platforms, and the editorial rights of digital platforms in particular. Continue reading →

The Mercatus Center has just released a new special study that I co-authored with Connor Haaland entitled, “Does the United States Need a More Targeted Industrial Policy for High Tech?” With industrial policy reemerging as a major issue — and with Congress still debating a $250 billion, 2,400-page industrial policy bill — our report does a deep dive into the history various industrial policy efforts both here and abroad over the past half century. Our 64-page survey of the historical record leads us to conclude that, “targeted industrial policy programs cannot magically bring about innovation or economic growth, and government efforts to plan economies from the top down have never had an encouraging track record.”

We zero in on the distinction between general versus targeted economic development efforts and argue that:

whether we are referring to federal, state, or local planning efforts—the more highly tar­geted development efforts typically involve many tradeoffs that are often not taken into consider­ation by industrial policy advocates. Downsides include government steering of public resources into unproductive endeavors, as well as more serious problems, such as cronyism and even corruption.

We also stress the need to more tightly define the term “industrial policy” to ensure rational evaluation is even possible. We argue that, “industrial policy has intentionality and directionality, which distinguishes it from science policy, innovation policy, and economic policy more generally.” We like the focus definition used by economist Nathaniel Lane, who defines industrial policy as “intentional political action meant to shift the industrial structure of an economy.”

Our report examines the so-called “Japan model” of industrial policy that was all the rage in intellectual circles a generation ago and then compares it to the Chinese and European industrial policy efforts of today, which many pundits claim that the US needs to mimic. Continue reading →