Policies that embrace freedom, innovation, and entrepreneurship while accepting risk can provide humanity with the technology to make us all freer, healthier, and safer.
Unless you’re an early riser, you woke up today shortly after your phone’s alarm rang. You rolled over, unplugged the phone from its charger, used your face or fingerprint to unlock it, and began your morning digital routine. You checked your email and texts, Facebook and Instagram notifications, and the status of your recent Amazon order. You looked up the weather forecast and skimmed headlines.
You then got out of bed, took a shower, brushed your teeth, made breakfast, and got dressed. Maybe you listened to a podcast or the news. At the Metro, you swiped your card to pass through the turnstile or used a debit card to buy a ticket. Perhaps you took an Uber. You walked into your office, powered up your computer, and began surfing the Web.
Even if this doesn’t describe your morning, you undoubtedly have friends, family members, and colleagues whose mornings were similar. It’s a routine of activities that would be familiar to our ancestors: reading, commuting, communicating, and socializing. A century ago, they’d have begun their workdays reading newspapers; catching a tram, train, or a bus to work; and gossiping with family and colleagues. Many of our more distant ancestors may have been unable to read, but they undoubtedly engaged in plenty of workplace and family socialization. They also ate breakfast and worried about the weather.
Although our modern morning routine is similar to that of our ancestors, it’s also a routine that our ancestors wouldn’t have recognized, guided in large part by devices that fit comfortably in our hands and provide us access to billions of people, as well as countless apps and services. Connectivity and access to information are a ubiquitous feature of modern life and a direct result of technological innovations.
Such innovations have revolutionized far more than our mornings. Medicine, warfare, factory production, air travel, construction, and farming have all undergone dramatic changes in the past 100 years thanks to advances in technology. In the historical equivalent of a blink of an eye, we’ve gone from a world where access to electricity, stoves, cars, telephones, and refrigerators was reserved for a wealthy minority to one where almost everyone in the United States now has access to these goods.
Today, more than 90 percent of U.S. households have a stove, car, fridge, air conditioning, microwave, and cellphone. 1 This technological revolution hasn’t been reserved to the global rich. Residents of countries where poverty was the norm a hundred years ago have not only experienced massive increases in wealth over the past century, but they’ve also increased their access to the internet, cellphones, cars, refrigerators, and other common household goods.
It’s hard to think of a field of human endeavor that hasn’t been irreversibly changed for the better thanks to the past century of technological change. Nothing quite like it has ever been seen before.
And there’s more to come. Drones, driverless cars, private space flight, artificial intelligence (AI), gene editing, 3D printing, supersonic flight, the internet of things, cryptocurrencies, and nanotechnology are poised to help make the world a safer, healthier, and more prosperous place to live.
Sadly, governments have erected barriers to many of these innovations, hampering progress and limiting access to new products. Those barriers are motivated by different impulses and concerns. Market incumbents seeking to avoid competition by engaging in lobbying and cronyism certainly deserve some of the blame, but it’s an attitude toward governance rather than firms that is mostly responsible.
Too often, regulators have embraced the “precautionary principle,” the notion that the release of new products should be slowed down or outright prohibited when their health or safety effects are uncertain. This attitude is keeping life‐changing technologies trapped within the minds of entrepreneurs and technologists or in garages, flight hangers, and laboratories. In addition, government policies not ostensibly related to technology can nonetheless have a negative effect on technology policy. Laws and regulations governing immigration and government transparency are only some examples. After all, technologists, engineers, and entrepreneurs will have the best chance of building new technologies if they can hire the best‐educated talent while working with the most accurate data.
A libertarian approach to emerging technologies embraces a presumption of freedom. It’s one that acknowledges that emerging technologies are associated with uncertainties, risks, and costs, but it also holds that the benefits of innovation, creative destruction, and discovery far outweigh the costs. Such an approach would be a dramatic shift from the current regulatory environment, in which technologists are too often put in the position of asking for permission rather than forgiveness.
The Regulatory Landscape
Tackling “technology policy” can be a tricky business. Technology policy affects almost every part of our lives and is not as narrowly defined as foreign policy, housing policy, or education policy. In that sense, “technology policy” is a term that is as ambiguous as “economic policy.” Like the economy, technologies are not governed or regulated by one agency or department. Rather, a plethora of departments and alphabet soup agencies govern emerging technologies.
The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), FDA (Food and Drug Administration), NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), and many others have been involved in regulatory battles associated with new and emerging technologies. Other government agencies and departments can have a major impact on how we use technology, even if they don’t directly regulate technologies. The Departments of Defense and Justice are perhaps the most obvious examples.
Although these regulatory agencies have different mandates, cultures, staffs, and histories, it’s fair to say that they each embrace a version of the precautionary principle, which holds that if the effects of a product are unknown or disputed, then that product shouldn’t make it to market. In a libertarian world, none of these regulatory agencies would exist. That regulators embrace the precautionary principle is not new or surprising, but that doesn’t make it any less regrettable.
Cautious approaches to new technology can yield absurd results. In 1865, the British Parliament passed the Locomotive Act of 1865, which mandated—among other things—that a man with a red flag walk ahead of each self‐propelled vehicle. After all, steam engine–powered vehicles were dangerous.
More recently, we’ve seen the FAA ground commercial drones, prompting Amazon to test its delivery drones abroad. 2 The FAA has also grounded the flight‐sharing company FlyteNow. 3 In November 2013, the FDA sent personal genome company 23andMe a curtailment letter, ordering it to stop selling its genotype screening test, which can inform customers about their inherited likelihood of certain diseases and conditions. 4 According to the FDA’s letter, 23andMe had violated the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The FDA claimed that 23andMe’s genome kit qualified as a medical “device” and was therefore subject to marketing approval and clearance, which 23andMe did not have.
Unfortunately for innovators working on aerial technology and medical devices, their products are, as Mercatus Center senior research fellow Adam Thierer puts it, “born captive” rather than “born free.” 5
When Uber and Airbnb arrived on the scene, no “Sharing Economy Agency” or “Gig Economy Commission” existed. Shortly after the publication of the Bitcoin white paper, 6 computers were mining Bitcoins without the approval of a “Cryptocurrency Oversight Board.” Both Uber and Bitcoin were “born free.”
The same can’t be said for drones. The FAA has been around since the late 1950s. It’s an established fixture of the federal government’s regulatory landscape. Flying machines—whether airplanes, helicopters, or model airplanes—are all subject to FAA rules and regulations. Emerging aerial technologies are “born captive” in a regulatory compound rife with fences, guards, and watchtowers. The FAA is keen on grounding new and emerging technologies, with the National Academies of Sciences characterizing the FAA’s culture as one “with a near‐zero tolerance for risk.” 7 That outlook is a particular shame given the United States’ history of flight innovation, much of which came at the expense of risk and uncertainty.
The history of human flight is replete with broken bones and deadly accidents. The life expectancy for the first U.S. mail pilots was 900 flying hours. 8 In 1919, one mail pilot died for every 115,325 miles flown. 9 Today, flying is not nearly so dangerous. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, air transportation workers had a fatal injury rate of 3.8 per 100,000 full‐time‐equivalent workers in 2017. 10 That rate is more than five times lower than for farming, fishing, and forestry occupations. 11
A libertarian approach to technology hardly encourages the deaths of those operating new machines. But it does accept the reality that new technologies can sometime be dangerous.
When cars first rolled off assembly lines, they were much more dangerous than they are today. Seat belts and airbags were not mandated until relatively recently, and they would have undoubtedly saved some lives if they had been installed in cars earlier. But no one is going to seriously suggest that a government agency should have put the development of the car on hold until manufacturers could achieve the level of safety we enjoy today. Indeed, it’s only by trial and error that manufacturers learn what safety features should be required.
Airplanes and cars are heavily regulated. They were once born free but today are decidedly born captive. In a libertarian world of permissionless innovation, entrepreneurs and inventors would be free to innovate and create without having to seek approval from the State. Such an approach is not without costs, but we can be confident that the benefits will far outweigh those costs.
When weighing costs and benefits, we should be leery of the human tendency to fixate on negative headlines and take for granted positive developments. In a libertarian world, we should expect bad news to continue to dominate headlines. That would hardly be surprising; pessimism is a critical part of human software. And, of course, bad news (crashes, deaths, etc.) takes place over short periods, whereas good news (e.g., decreases in poverty and crime rates) tends to occur over decades.
Newspapers across the world could have run with the headline “Number of People in Extreme Poverty Fell by 137,000 since Yesterday” every day for the past 25 years. 12 Despite the plethora of data showing how the world has become safer, healthier, and richer, doom‐and‐gloom pessimism dominates headlines as well as countless dinner‐table conversations across the country. In anticipation, it’s worth considering the risks and opportunities associated with emerging technologies.
Risks and Opportunities
The government is constantly developing new technologies designed to further intrude on our private lives and improve its weapons. Technological innovations can improve our lives, but we should guard against government’s use of technology that results in eliminating privacy and developing robots capable of identifying and killing targets.
Government has a long reach, but fortunately it cannot outlaw mathematics. Consequently, end‐to‐end encrypted communication remains available to the public, although governments could take misguided steps to shut businesses that market themselves as privacy‐friendly. The proliferation of body cameras, drones, and law‐enforcement AI is a trend that should not go unchecked. Technological innovation could lead to a world in which football‐sized blimps surveil entire cities and cameras outfitted with facial recognition software become a regular sight.
In such a world, there would be less liberty. Fortunately, government can impose restrictions on law enforcement’s use of such technology that needn’t stifle private innovation. At the very least, officials at the federal, state, and local levels should be required to disclose plans for using surveillance technologies before deploying such tools.
The widespread use of surveillance technologies is not the only cause for tech‐related pessimism. It’s easy to feel tempted by despair when considering the perceived lack of technological advances in the years since man first walked on the moon. As Silicon Valley investor and entrepreneur Peter Thiel put it, we wanted flying cars, and we got 140 characters. 13
Anyone who saw Stanley Kubrick’s classic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey on its release in April 1968 could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that by 2001 we would have regular space travel and manned missions to Jupiter guided by AI. After all, on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy declared, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” 14 By April 1968, Apollo 1 had completed its mission and on July 21, 1969—only a little more than a year after 2001: A Space Odyssey was released—Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.
But we have actually come a long way since the first moon walk. Our handheld computers are far more powerful than the whole of Apollo 11’s command module. Such devices are not reserved to the rich and famous; 81 percent of American adults own a smartphone. 15 The emergence and proliferation of smartphones have revolutionized our social lives for the better and have made innovative companies such as Uber possible. The internet—which allows billions of devices across the world to connect to one another—has prompted a degree of change in our economy, politics, and culture unparalleled since the invention of the movable‐type printing press in the 15th century.
We are a long way from establishing Mars colonies; however, we shouldn’t be too down on the “140 characters.” Twitter and other social media giants may be on the receiving end of bipartisan criticism these days, but it is undeniable that on net these companies have provided us with new, cheap, and valuable ways to connect with one another.
Climbing Olympus Mons and walking on a mined asteroid may be achievements for the yet unborn, but the near future holds some exciting possibilities.
Driverless cars may well be regular fixtures in the coming decades. Fitness wearables such as those from Fitbit are increasingly popular. Both driverless cars and wearables are parts of the growing “internet of things,” which also includes appliances like the Amazon Echo, “smart” refrigerators and thermostats, and energy monitors.
The internet of things promises to make our lives more comfortable and safer. Wouldn’t it be great to have all the devices in your home communicate with one another? In the morning, your wearable devices and phone would communicate valuable information to your refrigerator and car, including how well you slept and your schedule.
In the afternoon as you travel home in your driverless car, your wearable would already be communicating to your home. Maybe your wearable device can sense that you had a rough day at the office and may feel more inclined to have a glass of wine than a Diet Coke. Perhaps your home entertainment system will be playing soothing music as you walk through the door. Unbeknownst to you, your daughter’s soccer practice ended early (the coach had to deal with an unexpected family emergency). Consequently, your car drives a little faster than usual so that once it drops you off at home it can quickly make its way to the field to pick her up.
A world full of driverless cars and interconnected appliances might be convenient, but it is far from perfect. People still die too young of disease and suffer painful deaths, accidents, and disabilities. Fortunately, new and emerging technologies are contributing to the ongoing battles against cancer, diabetes, and other deadly and chronic conditions.
Researchers at China’s National Center for Nanoscience and Technology and Arizona State University have built robots the size of dust mites, which, when injected into mice’s bloodstreams, can shrink the size of tumors. 16 A San Diego–based company is developing bioprinting technology, which one day may result in our being able to create replacement organs from a handful of donor cells. 17 This technology is especially exciting, given that about 20 people die in the United States every day while awaiting a transplant. 18
When unexpected accidents do occur, it would be great to have thousands of nanobots in your bloodstream communicating important details to medical professionals. 19 Those nanobots might also be able to send information to medical drones, which would deliver supplies to you that cater to your needs while streaming video to the EMTs en route.
Predicting the future is, of course, hazardous. Some predictions will eventually be realized; others will be viewed as absurd. Even science fiction writers, who constantly consider possible technologies, have major blind spots. In Blade Runner, the classic 1982 dystopian science fiction movie based on a Philip K. Dick novel, machines as intelligent as humans walk among us. And yet people are still reading newspapers. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Heywood Floyd can fly to a space station in a Pan Am spacecraft as part of his trip to a moon base, but he has to enter a phone booth to video‐chat with his daughter. The Fifth Element creator Luc Besson could envision the rise of flying vehicles for the 1997 movie, but he couldn’t imagine a world where taxis have gone the way of the horse and buggy. Those of us who spend our time pondering what future technologies might look like should embrace humility and be aware that we could be wrong.
But government regulators and lawmakers should embrace humility too. Not every consequence of every new technology can be determined beforehand. The negative unintended consequences are, of course, possible, but we mustn’t sacrifice innovation on the altar of safety.
Regulatory reform is a necessary but not sufficient condition for libertarian technology policy. If lawmakers dramatically changed the current regulatory environment governing technology, that would be a massive improvement. But more changes are required.
In a libertarian world, firms can hire whomever they want to work on their projects. Technological talent, like all talent, appears all over the world. Fortunately for the technology firms in Libertopia, firms don’t have to worry about restrictions on immigration. They can hire whomever they want. Libertopia is also a much more open and transparent world than our current one. More access to government data would allow innovators to make better products. Once the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made weather satellite data available to the public, the private sector could build a weather‐forecasting industry worth billions of dollars. 20
If we want to live in a world of efficient and innovative technologies, engineers will need access to high‐quality data and a talented workforce. The government can contribute by making more data accessible and by abolishing practically all restrictions on migration. 21
In Libertopia, inventors can pursue their interests and private companies are free to explore the numerous applications of new technologies. Technology firms can hire whomever they want without having to worry about a government agency grounding their projects. Entrepreneurs, inventors, and scientists are in the position of asking for forgiveness rather than permission.
We can’t be confident about what technology in Libertopia looks like. Perhaps some people will sit on their porches overseeing marijuana farms, listening to the distant buzz of crop‐dusting drones while waiting for a driverless vehicle to deliver a new robot nanny for their children. Perhaps others will spend most of their lives in virtual reality, with astronauts training for asteroid mining operations and doctors inspecting their patients’ blood vessels and organs with footage from medical nanobots. This world will also have accidents and unintended consequences associated with new technologies, but the benefits will far outweigh the costs. Libertopia isn’t perfect, but it’s much better than the world we currently inhabit.
6. Satoshi Nakamoto, “Bitcoin: A Peer‐to‐Peer Electronic Cash System,” white paper, 2008.
7. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Assessing the Risks of Integrating Unmanned Aircraft Systems into the National Airspace System (Washington: National Academies Press, 2018).
8. The Suicide Club, exhibit, Smithsonian National Postal Museum, Washington.
21. These recommendations are based on proposals outlined by Caleb Watney: Caleb Watney, “Reducing entry barriers in the development and application of AI,” R Street Institute Policy Study no. 153, October 9, 2018.