FTC's New Economic Liberty Task Force Is a Step in Right Direction

Permissionless Innovation is the general freedom for consumers to try a wide range of new goods and services without cumbersome barriers standing in the way. Another phrase for this is “economic liberty,” and America could use a lot more of it. 

President Trump recently announced the formation of a new White House Office of American Innovation (OAI), which is tasked with crafting recommendations “on policies and plans that improve government operations and services, improve the quality of life for Americans now and in the future, and spur job creation.” To best accomplish this, Trump should follow the lead of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which has a refreshing respect for the benefits of economic liberty.

Ask any American which sector of the economy is the most innovative, or which provides them with the most benefits, and chances are most will name something closely tied to the digital economy: online services, smartphones, apps, or something else fueled by the Internet. In fact, when asked in surveys, 90 percent of Internet users say it has been a good thing for them personally and 76 percent say it has been a good thing for society more generally.

This success story was fueled by “Permissionless Innovation.” This is the freedom for individuals to innovate without a dealt approach that treats everything new as illegal until proven otherwise (think: permits and licenses). It is also the general freedom for consumers to try a wide range of new goods and services without cumbersome barriers standing in the way.

Another phrase for this is “economic liberty,” and America could use a lot more of it. 

At the individual level, economic liberty is about being able to freely make a living and enjoy the fruits of entrepreneurship, competition, and choice. At a societal level, economic liberty is crucial to new business formation, job growth, productivity, and global competitive advantage. From occupational licensing to certificate-of-need laws to outdated consumer protection laws, we at the Mercatus Center have been studying the costs of policies that affect economic freedom and offering a broad framework for reform.

Luckily, the White House won’t need to look far for help in pursuing its well-intentioned goal. The FTC recently announced the creation of its own Economic Liberty Task Force. It is the first major policy initiative for acting FTC Chair Maureen K. Ohlhausen, who has made the expansion of economic liberty a top priority in her many years at the agency.

The goal of the Task Force, Ohlhausen says, is to address regulations that “stifle competition and innovation by preventing newcomers from entering the market, harming consumers through higher prices and fewer choices.” The agency has decades of experience studying inefficient barriers to trade and competition advocacy. It possesses tools to advise levels of government when they get it wrong. And it can bring lawsuits against state and local governments when necessary.

As former FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright has noted, this new task force should re-energize existing programs, as well as enable the FTC to litigate more and comment more frankly and aggressively than in recent years.

More importantly, this idea isn’t new to Washington. In fact, it is a nonpartisan issue. In July 2015, President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers released a report titled “Occupational Licensing: A Framework for Policymakers,” stating “There is evidence that licensing requirements raise the price of goods and services, restrict employment opportunities, and make it more difficult for workers to take their skills across state lines.”

After surveying major research on the topic, the Obama White House report concluded that “the stakes involved are high, and to help our economy grow to its full potential we need to create a 21st century regulatory system.”

That’s why the work of the FTC’s new Economic Liberty Task Force will be so important, and can build upon what the Obama administration already started. The agency has the chance to finally make good on nonpartisan reform priorities set forth by both the Obama and Trump administrations, and make strides toward tearing down barriers to economic liberty and mobility across the United States.