– April 20, 2020
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In a much-circulated new essay (“It’s Time to Build”), Marc Andreessen has penned a powerful paean to the importance of building. He says the COVID crisis has awakened us to the reality that America is no longer the bastion of entrepreneurial creativity it once was. “Part of the problem is clearly foresight, a failure of imagination,” he argues. “But the other part of the problem is what we didn’t do in advance, and what we’re failing to do now. And that is a failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to build.”

Andreessen suggests that, somewhere along the line, something changed in the DNA of the American people and they essentially stopped having the desire to build as they once did. “You don’t just see this smug complacency, this satisfaction with the status quo and the unwillingness to build, in the pandemic, or in healthcare generally,” he says. “You see it throughout Western life, and specifically throughout American life.” He continues:

“The problem is desire. We need to want these things. The problem is inertia. We need to want these things more than we want to prevent these things. The problem is regulatory capture. We need to want new companies to build these things, even if incumbents don’t like it, even if only to force the incumbents to build these things.”

Accordingly, Andreessen continues on to make the case to both the political right and left to change their thinking about building more generally. “It’s time for full-throated, unapologetic, uncompromised political support from the right for aggressive investment in new products, in new industries, in new factories, in new science, in big leaps forward.”

What’s missing in Andreessen’s manifesto is a concrete connection between America’s apparent dwindling desire to build these things and the political realities on the ground that contribute to that problem. Put simply, policy influences attitudes. More specifically, policies that frown upon entrepreneurial risk-taking actively disincentivize the building of new and better things. Thus, to correct the problem Andreessen identifies, it is essential that we must first remove political barriers to productive entrepreneurialism or else we will never get back to being the builders we once were.     

Attitudes about Progress Matter 

The economic historian Joel Mokyr has noted how, “technological progress requires above all tolerance toward the unfamiliar and the eccentric” and that the innovation that undergirds economic growth is best viewed as “a fragile and vulnerable plant” that “is highly sensitive to the social and economic environment and can easily be arrested by relatively small external changes.” Specifically, societal and political attitudes toward growth, risk-taking, and entrepreneurial activities (and failures) are important to the competitive standing of nations and the possibility of long-term prosperity. “How the citizens of any country think about economic growth, and what actions they take in consequence, are,” Benjamin Friedman observes, “a matter of far broader importance than we conventionally assume.”

Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan and co-author Adrian Wooldridge have observed that “[t]he key to America’s success lies in its unique toleration for ‘creative destruction,’” and an “enduring preference for change over stability.” This is consistent with the findings of Deirdre McCloskey’s recent 3-volume trilogy about the history of modern economic growth. McCloskey meticulously documents how an embrace of “bourgeois virtues” (i.e., positive attitudes about markets and innovation) was the crucial factor propelling the invention and economic growth that resulted in the Industrial Revolution. The importance of positive attitudes toward innovation and risk-taking were equally important for the Information Revolution more recently. In turn, that also helps explain why so many US-based tech innovators became global powerhouses, while firms from other countries tend to flounder because their innovation culture was more precautionary in orientation.

There are limits to how much policymakers can do to influence the attitudes among citizens toward innovation, entrepreneurialism, and economic growth. When policymakers set the right tone with a positive attitude toward innovation, however, it inevitably infuses various institutions and creates powerful incentives for entrepreneurial efforts to be undertaken. This, in turn, influences broader societal attitudes and institutions toward innovation and creates a positive feedback loop. “If we learn anything from the history of economic development,” argued David Landes in his magisterial The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some Are So Poor, “it is that culture makes all the difference.” Research by other scholars finds that, “existing cultural conditions determine whether, when, how and in what form a new innovation will be adopted.”

Economists like Mancur Olson speak of the importance of a “structure of incentives” that helps explain why “the great differences in the wealth of nations are mainly due to differences in the quality of their institutions and economic policies.” In this sense, “institutions” include what Elhanan Helpman defines as “systems of rules, beliefs, and organizations,” including the rule of law and court systems, property rights, contracts, free trade policies and institutions, light-touch regulations and regulatory regimes, freedom to travel, and various other incentives to invest. 

It is the freedom to invest, the freedom to work, and the freedom to build that particularly concerns Marc Andreessen. But he needs to draw the connection with the specific public policies that hold back our ability to exercise those freedoms. 

Policy Defaults toward Innovation Matter Even More

Unfortunately, a great many barriers exist to entrepreneurial efforts. Those barriers to building include inflexible health and safety regulation, occupational licensing rules, cronyist industrial protectionist schemes, inefficient (industry-rigged) tax schemes, rigid zoning ordinances, and many other layers of regulatory red tape at the federal, state, and local level.  

What unifies all these policies is risk aversion and the precautionary principle. As I argued in my last book, we have a choice when it comes to setting defaults for innovation policy. We can choose to set innovation defaults closer to the green light of “permissionless innovation,” generally allowing entrepreneurial acts unless a compelling case can be made not to. Alternatively, we can set our default closer to the red light of the precautionary principle, which disallows risk-taking or entrepreneurialism until some authority gives us permission to proceed. 

My book made the case for permissionless innovation as the superior default regime. My argument for rejecting the precautionary principle as the default came down to belief that, “living in constant fear of worst-case scenarios—and premising public policy on them—means that best-case scenarios will never come about. When public policy is shaped by precautionary principle reasoning,” I argued, “it poses a serious threat to technological progress, economic entrepreneurialism, social adaptation, and long-run prosperity.”  

Heavy-handed preemptive restraints on innovative acts have such deleterious effects because they raise barriers to entry, increase compliance costs, and create more risk and uncertainty for entrepreneurs and investors. Progress is impossible without constant trial-and-error experimentation and entrepreneurial risk-taking. Thus, it is the unseen costs of forgone innovation opportunities that make the precautionary principle so troubling as a policy default. Without risk, there can be no reward. Scientist Martin Rees refers to this truism about the precautionary principle as “the hidden cost of saying no.”  

More generally, risk analysts have noted that the precautionary principle “lacks a firm logical foundation” and is “literally incoherent” because it fails to specify a clear standard by which to judge which risks are most serious and worthy of preemptive control. Moreover, regulatory policy experts have criticized the fact that the precautionary principle, “may be misused for protectionist ends; it tends to undermine international regulatory cooperation; and it may have highly undesirable distributive consequences.” Specifically, large incumbent firms are almost always more likely able to deal with rigid, expensive regulatory regimes or, worse yet, can game those systems by “capturing” policymakers and using regulatory regimes to exclude new rivals.  

Precaution Suffocates Productive Entrepreneurialism 

The problem today is that a massive volume of precautionary policies exist that discourage “productive entrepreneurship” (i.e., building) and instead actively encourage “unproductive entrepreneurship” (i.e., preservation of the status quo). Andreessen identifies this problem when he speaks of “smug complacency, this satisfaction with the status quo and the unwillingness to build.” But he doesn’t fully connect the dots between how the attitudes came about and the public policy incentives that actively encourage such thinking. 

Why try to build when all the incentives are aligned against you? Andreessen wants to know “Where are the supersonic aircraft? Where are the millions of delivery drones? Where are the high speed trains, the soaring monorails, the hyperloops, and yes, the flying cars?” Well, I’ll tell you where they are at. They are trapped in the minds of inventive people who cannot bring them to fruition so long as an endless string of barriers makes it costly or impossible for them to realize those dreams. 

Read Eli Dourado’s important essay on “How Do We Move the Needle on Progress?” to get a more concrete feel for the specific barriers to building in the fields where productive entrepreneurialism is most needed: health, housing, energy, and transportation.

The bottom line, as Dustin Chambers and Jonathan Munemo noted in a 2017 Mercatus Center report on the impact of regulation on entrepreneurial activity, is that “If a nation wishes to promote higher levels of domestic entrepreneurship in both the short and long run, top priority should be given to reducing barriers to entry for new firms and to improving overall institutional quality (especially political stability, regulatory quality, and voice and accountability).” 

This doesn’t mean there is no role for government in helping to promote “building” and entrepreneurialism. A healthy debate continues to rage about “state capacity” as it pertains to government investments in research and development, for example. While I am skeptical, there may very well be some steps governments can take to encourage more and better investments in the sectors and technologies we desperately need. But all the “state capacity” in the world isn’t going to help until we first clear away the barriers that hold back the productive spirit of the people. 

Oiling the Wheels of Novelty

My new book, which is due out next week, discusses how innovation improves economies and government institutions. It builds on the fundamental insight of Calestous Juma, who concluded his masterwork 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,” Juma said, “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 represents a tolerance of new ideas, inventions, and unknown futures. It can and should also represent an openness to new, more flexible methods of governance. For, if it doesn’t, the builder movement that Andreessen and others long for will remain just a distant dream, incapable of ever being realized so long as the wheels of novelty are gummed up by decades of inefficient, archaic, counterproductive public policies. 

Adam Thierer

Adam-Thierer

Adam Thierer is Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research and a Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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