February 5, 2018

Making the World Safe for More Moonshots

Adam Thierer

Senior Research Fellow
Moonshot

This essay is part of a series of "moonshots" by contributing authors. Each essay paints a picture of why leading scholars pursue their work, and what they hope to achieve in doing so.

WatchDonald J. Boudreaux explains the importance of moonshot-thinking, and why radical, but feasible, policy solutions can help power future growth and innovation.

Ironically, my “moonshot” is to help make the world safe for more moonshots. How? By helping to devise sensible public policies for emerging technologies that have the potential to profoundly change the world for the better.

I’m not talking about literal moonshots here—although I do find the idea of expanded opportunities for space exploration quite exciting! More generally, I want to help open the door to all sorts of different “moonshots,” or what my Mercatus Center colleague Donald Boudreaux has referred to as, “radical but feasible solutions to important problems,” and what others have called “innovation that achieves the previously unthinkable.”  

Why care about such things? And why do I personally work so hard to create a policy environment that is conducive to achieving more moonshots? Put simply, we should push for more moonshots because there is a profoundly positive correlation between innovation and human prosperity. Countless economic studies and historical surveys have documented the symbiotic relationship among technological progress, economic growth, and improvement of overall social welfare. Big innovations spawn big gains for society in the form of more choices, greater mobility, increased wealth, better health, and longer lifespans.

By their very nature, however, game-changing innovations are extraordinarily difficult to forecast or plan well in advance. They often take us completely by surprise. We need plenty of ongoing experimentation—including lots of failures—if we hope to unlock such innovations.

That is why it is important to let people be free to dare to dream their impossible dreams. “What entrepreneurs do,” venture capitalist Vinod Khosla argues, “is they imagine what feels impossible to most people, and take it all the way from impossible, to improbable, to possible but unlikely, to plausible, to probable, to real!”

It’s an old story, of course. Thomas Edison’s famously responded to being ridiculed for his 10,000 failed lightbulb experiments with “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once.” Instead, Edison responded, “I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.” Nobody was laughing, however, once Edison eventually succeeded and lit up our lives.

That’s the real power of daring to be a dreamer, and that spirit is what propels an economy forward and allows us to prosper. “The key,” Khosla correctly notes, “is individual entrepreneurs and their passion for a vision and no matter how ludicrous their idea might seem, they give the improbable a shot.”

This is also why innovation policy is so essential. A nation needs to get its institutions and policy attitudes toward entrepreneurial activates right if we want more moonshots to happen. The economic historian Deirdre McCloskey has documented how an embrace of “bourgeois virtues” gave rise to previous technological revolutions. “A big change in the common opinion about markets and innovation,” she has argued, “caused the Industrial Revolution, and then the modern world. . . . The result was modern economic growth.”  The same cultural disposition helped power the rise of the Internet and the Digital Revolution. What was true for the Industrial Revolution and the Digital Revolution can be just as true for the next great technological revolution and help us achieve more moonshots that are currently just a dream in someone’s mind.

Another term for this disposition and policy approach is “permissionless innovation,” which, as I have explained in a book of the same name, refers to the idea that experimentation with new technologies and business models should generally be permitted by default. Unless a compelling case can be made that a new invention will bring serious harm to society, innovation should be allowed to continue unabated. Problems, if any develop, can be addressed later.

Of course, a policy environment characterized by this governance vision will also produce many failures, but society will then learn from those mistakes and improve future experiments accordingly. “Permissionless innovation,” observes Duke University economist Michael Munger, “allows us to create truly new things for each other to enjoy — things the experts may not understand or approve of, but that nonetheless hold the potential to transform the world.”

Forbearance and patience are the most crucial values in a system that makes permissionless innovation the lodestar of innovation policy. As Virginia Postrel pointed out in her 1998 book, The Future and Its Enemies, it comes down to having “the self-restraint not to impose your own idea of the one best way on others [and] not to use political power to short-circuit trial-and-error learning.” 

More concretely, this means that scholars and policymakers who care about expanded innovation opportunities need to be identifying and removing barriers to future moonshots.  This is what we aim to do at the Mercatus Center when we apply the permissionless innovation policy vision to diverse sectors and technologies including: the Internet of Things and wearable devices, driverless cars, commercial drones, Bitcoin and blockchain technologies, 3D printing, virtual reality and immersive tech, artificial intelligence and robotics, and advanced medical devices.

In a forthcoming book and other essays, my colleagues and I will be exploring strategies for opening up these and other fields to more “moonshot” moments. In a recent essay, I’ve already previewed some of the high-level reforms that policymakers could pursue “to maximize the potential for ongoing, positive change and create a policy environment conducive to permissionless innovation.” For example, here are three specific proposals that policymakers at all levels of government could put into place immediately:

1. “The Innovator’s Presumption”: Any person or party (including a regulatory authority) who opposes a new technology or service shall have the burden to demonstrate that such proposal is inconsistent with the public interest.

2. “The Sunsetting Imperative”: Any existing or newly imposed technology regulation should include a provision sunsetting the law or regulation within two years.

3).“The Parity Provision”: Any operator offering a similarly situated product or service should be regulated no more stringently than its least regulated competitor.

Reforms such as these are broadly applicable and can help break down the formidable barriers that entrepreneurs face. This will allow them to pursue innovations that can catalyze economic growth and enrich human flourishing more generally. If we hope to achieve “the previously unthinkable,” it is essential we get busy with the hard work of making the world safe for more moonshots by giving those daring dreamers the chance to work their magic.