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Defending Innovation Against Attacks From All Sides
By Adam Thierer
Innovation is under attack from many quarters and needs a strong defense. This is the first of a monthly column that aims to make the practical and moral case for why innovation matters so profoundly. At the same time, I will defend innovation against academics, policymakers and politicians who would limit the potential for people to create and use new tools that can better everyone’s lives.
The utilitarian case for innovation is that it is the primary driver of improvements in human welfare. That’s also the ethical basis for innovation. After all, if we know that technological change is the most essential ingredient for economic growth and human flourishing, then we have a moral obligation to defend it. Indeed, it would be unethical not to.
But the argument for innovation isn’t just about economic growth—although, as the director of the Mercatus Center, Tyler Cowen, notes in his latest book, “Stubborn Attachments,” that relationship is worthy of greater appreciation. “We must not take the existence of wealth for granted,” he says. There is a greater moral dimension associated with innovation and growth. “Growth is valuable not only for our material improvement,” argues Benjamin Friedman of Harvard University, “but for how it affects our social attitudes and our political institutions—in other words, our society’s moral character, in the term favored by the Enlightenment thinkers from whom so many of our views on openness, tolerance and democracy have sprung.”
Fulfilling Human Potential
Growth and innovation are worth defending because they allow us to pursue lives of our own choosing, enrich us culturally, expand the horizons of our humanity, and provide a check on the power of governments over us. This column will endeavor to prove as much.
Perhaps the most astonishing criticism of innovation today is that it has given us too much: too much leisure, affluence, materialism, entertainment. While critics regularly sneer at the supposed “cult of convenience” and lament the supposed “paradox of choice”—as in too much choice—we should appreciate that these are very good problems to have! Imagine traveling back in time and complaining to our ancestors—who’d be toiling in forests, fields or factories—that the future will offer us too much convenience or choice. They’d likely smack us for being so spoiled.
There are many flavors of anti-technology criticism today, but in the months ahead I will highlight the growing radicalism of the attacks on innovation from both the academic and public policy communities. This opposition comes from both the political left and right, but it is most intense among the growing class of university professors who proudly identify as Luddites, and includes an increasingly vociferous contingent of advocates for “degrowth,” or technological stasis.
Two Opposing Visions
Virginia Postrel saw all this coming. In her 1998 book, “The Future and Its Enemies,” she showed how the conflicts between two competing worldviews—dynamism and stasis—would shape the coming debates over innovation policy and affect the course of human progress. She made the case for embracing dynamism—“a world of constant creation, discovery and competition”—over the “regulated, engineered world” of the stasis mentality. The dynamist is the inventor or entrepreneur spawning innovations and new markets, while the stasist is the planner, the bureaucrat or corporate steward focused on the downside of change.
Alas, as Postrel also predicted, our dynamic modern world and the amazing technologies that drive it have brought together diverse forces in opposition to change. While they may be motivated by different values or concerns, what unifies these critics is that someone’s settled status quo is regularly unsettled by the evolution of technology. Thus, they reject the uncertainty of innovation and insist “we” must plan a better future from the top down. As Postrel noted, while dynamists “see technology as an expression of human creativity and the future as inviting,” the stasis-minded crowd believes “that progress requires a central blueprint.”
This intellectual divide becomes evident when policymakers consider what sort of legal framework will govern the future of innovation in any given technology sector. In my recent books, I noted how policy debates about technology come down to whether the default paradigm will be the stasis-oriented precautionary principle or the dynamist-preferred vision of “permissionless innovation.” The precautionary principle holds that innovations are to be curtailed or even disallowed until the innovators can prove that they will not cause any harm. By contrast, permissionless innovation represents the idea that experimentation with new technologies and business models should generally be permitted by default.
Just Do It
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration follows the precautionary principle when it holds up new medical treatments; a permissionless innovator is an Uber or Airbnb that ignores the regulations and builds businesses in the gray areas. The former believes, Better safe than sorry; the latter lives by the rule, Ask forgiveness, not permission.
My rationale for rejecting the precautionary principle rests on the belief that living in constant fear of worst-case scenarios—and premising public policy on them—means that best-case scenarios will never come about. When public policy is shaped by the precautionary principle, it poses a serious threat to technological progress, economic entrepreneurialism, social adaptation and long-run prosperity.
Heavy-handed prior restraints have such damaging effects because they raise barriers to the entry of new competitors, increase the costs of complying with government regulations, and create more risk and uncertainty for innovators and investors. Progress is impossible without trial-and-error experimentation and entrepreneurialism.
While precautionary controls encumber too much creative activity, many people are putting permissionless innovation into action in their everyday lives. Evasive entrepreneurs—innovators who don’t conform to social or legal norms—are all around us. They include volunteers who use 3D printers to create free prosthetics for children, videographers who operate drones to film protests without a regulator’s blessing, and cryptocurrency pioneers who deploy blockchain technologies to create decentralized services. The public is becoming increasingly empowered to build new tools that challenge old status quos.
Dynamists: Prepare for Battle
This sets the stage for the next wave of technology policy battles, and these skirmishes will grow only more intense. As they do, dynamists will need to champion the future by embracing what science writer Matt Ridley calls rational optimism—a balanced defense of technological change that is rooted in humility, empiricism and an appreciation for bottom-up thinking and creativity in the face of adversity.
Rational optimism is the vision of not only Ridley and Postrel, but of other thinkers such as Steven Pinker, “Enlightenment Now”; Deirdre McCloskey, “Bourgeois Equality”; Calestous Juma, “Innovation and Its Enemies”; Samuel Florman, “The Existential Pleasures of Engineering”; Joel Mokyr, “The Lever of Riches”; and Thomas Sowell, “A Conflict of Visions.” These and many other scholars of progress have documented the centrality of innovation to human betterment, and they have continuously and unapologetically argued for embracing an open, dynamic future. That is the goal that will motivate this column to repeatedly explain why innovation matters.