April 16, 2020

Mercatus Scholars’ Most Influential Books: Adam Thierer

Adam Thierer

Senior Research Fellow

In commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, we’ve asked some of our scholars to share the books that have been most influential or formative in the development of their analytical approach and worldview.

From existential engineering to the Salem witch trials to Argentine magical realism, our scholars have drawn inspiration from diverse and dramatic wellsprings of intellectual thought.

Read on for more about why and how the books we will discuss have influenced our scholars’ approaches to policy and philosophy, and what lessons other readers may draw from these works.

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There have been so many books that shaped my thinking as a policy analyst that it is difficult to narrow the list to just a top five. To make that task easier, I focus here on five books that forever shaped the way I think about innovation policy, and which specifically influenced the approach I developed in my last book, Permissionless Innovation, and my next one, Evasive Entrepreneurs & the Future of Governance.

The unifying themes among the five books listed here are that tradeoffs matter and trial-and-error learning drives human progress. Explaining how trade-offs and trial-and-error learning affect technology policy has been the focus of my life’s work and I frequently return to these five books to find inspiration for how to defend technological innovation in an age of technopanics.

The Existential Pleasures of Engineering (by Samuel C. Florman)

Chances are that you have never heard of Samuel C. Florman despite a 60-year writing career during which he mounted a comprehensive defense of innovation and human progress. An engineer by training, Florman became concerned about the growing criticism of his profession during the postwar era. He pushed back in many essays, articles, and books over the next two decades, culminating in his 1976 masterpiece, The Existential Pleasures of Engineering.

Florman was as much a philosopher and a historian as he was an engineer, and his robust, well-rounded thinking on technology and society deserved greater attention. His book surveys academic criticism of innovation emanating from several academic fields—philosophy, sociology, law, and others—and summarized the six primary criticisms leveled by the “antitechnologists.” He then proceeds to utterly demolish each of those claims with remarkable rigor and wit.

For example, Florman responds to the claims that technology forces humans to do work that is tedious and degrading, or that it forces us to consume things we do not really desire, by pointing to the fundamental elitism underlying both assertions made by antitechnologists. “[T]heir persistent disregard of the average person’s sentiments is a crucial weakness in their argument—particularly when they then ask us to consider the ‘real’ satisfactions that they claim ordinary people experienced in other cultures of other times.” Florman was angered at the way critics stared down their noses at average folks and disregarded their values and choices.

Tech critics do this, Florman notes, by concocting bogus mythologies of the past. “The antitechnologists romanticize the work of earlier times in an attempt to make it seem more appealing than work in a technological age,” he notes. “But their idyllic descriptions of peasant life do not ring true.” The historical record, he shows, makes it clear that the “good ‘ol days” weren’t so great after all, and we have technological innovation to thank for lifting us out of poverty and despair.

To counter the many modern complaints critics raise about anxiety, alienation, and “dehumanization,” Florman argues that innovation is not cutting us off from the natural world or destroying our existential sense of well-being. He notes how critics seem to always forget that, “a basic human impulse precedes and underlies each technological development” and that, “[v]ery often this impulse, or desire, is directly responsible for the new invention.”

Florman’s thinking about innovation rooted in Benjamin Franklin’s observation that, “man is a tool-making animal.” “Both genetically and culturally the engineering instinct has been nurtured within us”—indeed, he argues it “was as old as the human race”—because it fulfills our need to survive and prosper as a species. Thus, consumer demands and choices regarding innovations are not just fictions that are fabricated and forced upon us, as the antitechnologists suggest. We make decisions for ourselves. “Those who would blame all of life’s problems on an amorphous technology, inevitably reject the concept of individual responsibility,” Florman retorts. “This is not humanism. It is a perversion of the humanistic impulse.”

Searching for Safety (by Aaron Wildavsky)

Aaron Wildavsky was a brilliant political scientist who explored the relationship between risk-taking and human progress throughout his life. His 1988 book, Searching for Safety warns of the dangers of “trial without error” reasoning and contrasts it with the trial-and-error method of evaluating risk and seeking wise solutions to it.

In doing so, Wildavsky sets forth the most powerful indictment of the “precautionary principle” ever penned. His book helped to reshape the way risk analysts would think about regulatory trade-offs going forward.

Wildavsky argues that real wisdom is born of experience and that we can learn how to be wealthier and healthier as individuals and a society only by first being willing to embrace uncertainty and even occasional failure. “If you can do nothing without knowing first how it will turn out, you cannot do anything at all,” he points out. If the precautionary principle becomes our policy default, it will mean stagnation because, “if trying new things is made more costly, there will be fewer departures from past practice; this very lack of change may itself be dangerous in forgoing chances to reduce existing hazards.” The search for safety, in other words, begins with an acceptance of the simple truth: Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Wildavsky teaches us that prosperity isn’t a prescription; it is a process. Specifically, it is a learning process rooted in deriving lessons from endless experiments. “Allowing, indeed, encouraging, trial and error should lead to many more winners,” he concludes, “because of (a) increased wealth, (b) increased knowledge, and (c) increased coping mechanisms, i.e., increased resilience in general.” This is the secret sauce that powers long-run improvements in human welfare.

A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles (by Thomas Sowell)

Thomas Sowell’s Conflict of Visions is like the Rosetta Stone of political theory; the key to deciphering why people think the way they do about human nature, economics, and politics. Sowell develops two useful paradigms—the “constrained” and “unconstrained” visions—and explains why these competing worldviews diverge on so many matters.

The unconstrained camp views humanity and society as perfectible, so long as trusted elites are free to engage in bold planning efforts to reshape civilization from above. By contrast, the constrained camp—to which Sowell himself subscribes—cautions against the hubris that leads many elites and policymakers to believe they can easily improve on spontaneous cultural and economic processes.

Whereas the unconstrained vision is one of grandiose solutions, the constrained vision stresses policy trade-offs and counsels patience and humility. For advocates of unconstrained thinking, almost any amount of political intervention will be acceptable so long as it is well-intentioned and focused on the goal of equal outcomes. But the unconstrained camp argues that noble intentions alone do not necessarily translate into sound public policy outcomes. Equality of opportunity counts more than perfectly equal outcomes.

A Conflict of Visions completely reshapes the way you process every news story or listen to any political discussion. You suddenly start muttering to yourself, “Well, there’s the unconstrained vision at work once again!” Today’s innovation policy world is dominated by unconstrained thinkers looking to completely upend modern social and economic systems and substitute for them some paternalistic vision of a better society. Sowell’s book explains why such thinking will likely be extraordinarily destructive in practice.

The Future and Its Enemies (by Virginia Postrel)

Like Sowell’s book, Postrel’s Future and Its Enemies contrasts two conflicting worldviews and explains how they shape the future of policy. In her case, she focused on how tensions between “dynamism” and “stasis” were shaping debates over technological progress.

Postrel made the case for embracing dynamism— “a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition”—over the “regulated, engineered world” of the stasis mentality. She argued that we should “see technology as an expression of human creativity and the future as inviting,” while also rejecting the idea “that progress requires a central blueprint,” as the stasis crowd suggests. Dynamists see progress as “a decentralized, evolutionary process” in which mistakes aren’t viewed as permanent disasters but instead as “the correctable by-products of experimentation.” As Wildavsky stressed before her, Postrel argued that mistakes and failures were profoundly important learning experiences.

Unfortunately, stasis-minded thinking threatens to gain more traction, Postrel warns, because many groups and individuals prefer the security blanket of the status quo over a world of incessant, unpredictable change. Presciently, she also made it clear that the old political distinctions (right vs. left, conservative vs. progressive) were becoming less relevant. Instead, it would become everyone versus the future. Our dynamic modern world and the amazing technologies that drive it, she said, “has united two types of stasists who would have once been bitter enemies: reactionaries, whose central value is stability, and technocrats, whose central value is controls.”

Basically, this is the world we find ourselves in today, with both the left and the right united by a desire for greater control over the pace and shape of technological innovation. They both hope that enlightened elites and wise public officials can set us on a supposedly “better path-” or return us to an old path from which we have drifted. Postrel’s book itemized the dangers of going down that path and instead called on us to defend an open, dynamic future against defenders of the status quo.

Innovation and Its Enemies (by Calestous Juma)

Calestous Juma’s Innovation and Its Enemies provides historical documentation proving that Postrel’s thesis has actually been true throughout human civilization. Using thoroughly researched case studies, Juma explore how at almost every juncture, “tensions between innovation and incumbency” led to social skirmishes and legal battles about the boundaries of acceptable change.

His case studies include diverse innovations like coffee, margarine, the printing press, farm equipment, electricity, mechanical refrigeration, recorded music, transgenic crops, and genetically engineered salmon. In each case, Juma shows how innovators needed to buck traditions (and sometimes protectionist laws) to offer the public new goods and services, most of which would later come to be considered socially-beneficial inventions. When those innovations debuted, however, opposition was intense and it often delayed beneficial social and economic change for many decades. 

Juma lived this experience himself while working with the United Nations, the World Bank, and the African Union. He sought to advance a better understanding of the importance of technological change for improving the condition of the world’s less fortunate, especially using biotechnology and GMOs. But opposition to innovations in these fields was, and remains, fierce.

Drawing on his battles with stasis-minded antitechnologists, Juma’s book also echoes Florman’s warning about misplaced nostalgia for supposed “golden eras” of in the past. “Demonizing innovation is often associated with campaigns to romanticize past products and practices,” he said. The problem with that “good ‘ol’ days” logic is that- “[o]pponents of innovation hark back to traditions as if traditions themselves were not inventions at some point in the past.”  

Juma points out how the things we hold dear in one era were likely ridiculed and viewed as scandalous, unconventional, or even criminal when they debuted. When looking backwards, we tend to normalize dramatic economic, cultural, and political shifts by thinking of them as incremental changes even though they were probably quite profound at the time. In the end, however, we grew wealthier and healthier by giving those innovations a chance.  

Accordingly, Juma concludes Innovation and Its Enemies by reminding us of the continued importance of “oiling the wheels of novelty,” to constantly replenish the well of important ideas and innovations. “The biggest risk that society faces by adopting approaches that suppress innovation,” he says, “is that they amplify the activities of those who want to preserve the status quo by silencing those arguing for a more open future.” 

The openness Juma had in mind is in line with what Sowell, Postrel, Wildavsky, and Florman also desired—an openness to new ideas, inventions, and unknown futures. But that openness to change will be snuffed out without a strong defense of the freedom to experiment with new and better ways of doing things.

The future needs friends because the enemies of innovative dynamism are voluminous and vociferous. It is a lesson we must never forget. Thanks to these five authors and their books, we never will.