November 23, 2015

America: Embracing the Fertile Verge of Progress

This article originally appeared in CapX on November 10, 2015.

We live in an age of miracles.

Autonomous vehicles, commercial drones, nano-medicinal drug delivery systems, gene therapy, quantum leaps in microprocessor technology, and the ubiquitous and nigh-uncontrollable flow of information are just a few of the changes that are beginning to upend our way of life. Disruptive technological change is rapidly re-creating a world that once experienced this rate of progress over centuries or millennia, not years. But it was not always this way.

For thousands of years, mankind stood perpetually poised on the precipice of subsistence, starvation, and annihilation. It is only in recent centuries that our species has wrenched itself from these contemptible conditions. We now stand upon a great verge of history. The path we choose will reverberate throughout the remainder of our lives, and well into the subsequent generations to come. On one side lies a fertile future of progress; and on the other, the possibility of economic, social, and technological stagnation.

In a previous CapX article, I argued that in order to accommodate the current pace of technological transformation, individuals must begin embracing values like tolerance, optimism, and regulatory forbearance. Of course, such calls are mere whispers upon the wind, drowned out by so many other hushed wishes. Appealing to the need for others to embrace change is about as effective a strategy as expending those whispers with the expectation that the course of the wind will change. So if we cannot change the way the wind blows, what can we do? An old Chinese proverb might illuminate the way: “When the wind of change blows, some people build walls, others build windmills.”

When confronted with the inevitability of change, how do we respond? Do we recoil in fear, enjoining ourselves to the contentment of the present by shunning the potential of the future? If we did, human progress would have forestalled long ago. Instead, on the whole, humanity has consistently and overwhelmingly embraced the march towards new frontiers. And the newest frontier of the human experience exemplifies this perspective—embodied in the form of the Internet.

The Internet, as Louis Rossetto once quipped, is simply “brains connected to brains through digital communication aided by brain appliances we call computers.” This interconnectivity is not a new feature of human existence, but the extent and ubiquity of the Internet’s scope makes this technology among the most remarkable achievements in human history. Historically, the outgrowth of the Internet was a conflagration of many factors, researchers, innovators, and technological developments. From a policy perspective, however, its commercialization and adoption resulted from a single document.

The Clinton Administration, seeking a policy position on how best to deal with this emerging global communications platform, argued for a hands-off regulatory approach. Ira Magaziner, the man charged with defining President Clinton’s administrative policy towards the newly emergent Internet, remarked on the framework thusly in a 1997 interview:

In the case of the Internet, or intranets in general, you have as close to an optimum market as I think we have seen. Consumers have almost infinite choices of venders and sellers to choose from. There is a very intensive and widespread competition, which will take place globally in most areas. So it lends itself to market-based solutions.

And, rather presciently, he went on to argue that:

…nobody really knows for sure where things are headed. On the other hand, government, by its nature, moves somewhat slowly and is somewhat inflexible when it does move. That may not be appropriate for the pace of the Internet and for the changeability of the Internet.

To put this quote into context, Magaziner was the man who helped lead the Task Force to Reform Health Care – Hillary Clinton’s early 1990s version of a single payer healthcare system. And yet, when confronted with the prospect of the emergent Internet, and the role government ought to play in its development, Magaziner prudently prescribed a regime of permissionless innovation. But why does Magaziner’s perspective on the Internet matter?

Technological development, and therefore human progress, is not a foregone conclusion. Social and economic advancement are not automatic features of history. If anything, they are the exception, not the norm. When societies relinquish an optimistic perspective on innovation, trial-and-error experimentation, and the value of failure in discovering new ways of doing things, progress stops. Alexis de Tocqueville, The famed French tourist of the early American experiment, aptly framed this concern:

I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all.

We are now confronted with a convergence of life-altering proportions. Software algorithms are infiltrating every nook and cranny of our daily lives and the Internet that we know today will soon be even more ubiquitous as we approach the coming age of the Internet of Everything.  That future, however, is not set in stone.

There is much that could forestall this future of abundance. America is beset by an onerous and pervasive regulatory system that has the power to curtail innovation and technological progress through ex ante regulations. Congress, though it ought to provide effective oversight of the bureaucracy, has become more and more accustomed to shifting its powers onto regulatory agencies. Where once the legislature reined in the excesses of agency overreach, the state apparatus now very nearly depends on Congress deferring to the expertise that lives in the federal bureaucracy.

But proper stewardship of the future also belongs to techno-centric advocates. Those who would embrace a future of abundance must ensure they effectively message the value of permissionless innovation and light-handed regulation. So too must the technology industry, and Silicon Valley in particular, think more critically about its willingness to engage inside the beltway. Many might decry such a strategy as being counterproductive to the pursuit of a more liberating, prosperous future. But the American system of governance as it exists today is propelled in no small part by governing networks of issue advocates.

How do these advocacy organizations influence public policy? My organization, the Niskanen Center, charts out the five primary reasons organizations focused on Beltway advocacy are so strikingly effective. Issue advocacy organizations:

  1. Are political barometers for elected officials.
  2. Are wellsprings of fresh, attractive, well-vetted reform ideas and policy innovations.
  3. Facilitate the creation of politically useful coalitions that are crucial for policy change.
  4. Are the main sources of policy-relevant academic work in Washington.
  5. Save policymakers a tremendous amount of time.

Achieving real, if only marginal, improvements to the policy landscape is among the most effective ways we can clear the path for a more appealing future. If we wish to see a future where progress, optimism, and human flourishing are the norm, then it begins here and now with moving the dial, however incrementally, towards better government policies.

In this way, we can ensure the future is one of abundance and innovation, not scarcity and stagnation.

Ryan Hagemann is the technology and civil liberties policy analyst at the Niskanen Center.