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March 17, 2016

Let the People Speak and Innovate

 

Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University and well known technology thinker, recently authored an op-ed in the Washington Post. He makes the point that technology, and innovation in general, moves more quickly than legislators’—or even inventors’—ability to understand the implications of an innovation. He’s correct and government should consider his insights and change its behavior.

Increasingly lawmakers and regulators mistakenly believe that they must be ahead of innovation, regulating and legislating before new products or business models even emerge. They certainly believe they should be ahead of the public and its views. This approach is the very antithesis of “permissionless innovation” and instead requires government to grant permission before experiment, innovation and creativity can move forward. This approach ultimately replaces the wisdom of the American people with the judgment of a handful of politicians and bureaucrats. 

As Wadhwa states, “Laws are essentially codified ethics, a consensus that is reached by society on what is right and wrong. This happens only after people understand the issues and have seen the pros and cons.” Laws define the least common denominator of behavior, the least society will accept. But when regulators force their way in ahead of the society, the value of their judgment and the respect people give to laws or regulations rapidly diminishes. The gap in between the pre-emptive government restriction and the public’s acceptance of invention is an accurate measurement of lost innovation. 

There are numerous current examples of this rush to restriction through regulation. The FCC alone seems to generate a new restrictive, anti-progress rule every week. But the issue that has captured the most attention lately is about encryption, that is, the ability of individuals to keep their communications and information private and without threat of unjustified government search and seizure. Some have already called for new powers to be granted to federal law enforcement, many others have made clear that increasing police powers is not the best answer. Because legislators feel they must act but obviously have little idea of what to do, some have called for a commission on encryption, the wrong idea for many reasons. 

Better would be a privacy commission as a means of inviting a national discussion about how our society should address privacy issues. The notion of privacy is sprawling, but trying to achieve a statement of principles, or a construct through which issues of privacy could be viewed, would be a great step forward. Such as statement would provide the public with an adequate and organized means to communicate their thoughts to lawmakers about what a secure society should be. Only afterwards should government seek to act, crafting solutions that correctly balance individuals’ privacy against other concerns. 

Just “doing something” is not a solution. Following snap polls with data collected in the midst of an emotional reaction is not thought nor leadership. Policymakers have to be patient and let society work it out, let democracy work its will. 

Too many regulators, bureaucrats and politicians have come to believe that they have a superior view, better judgment or a more advanced intellect than the rest of the nation. That is self-delusional fantasy. The people will speak to issues in their time, and the government class should be ready to act when they do, rather than pretending they have answers to questions not yet asked.


 

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