Techno-Libertarianism: Building The Case For Separation Of Technology And State

Can we keep government’s hands off the technology frontier?

I like to think it makes sense that libertarianism—or classical liberal ideas–would resonate in places like Silicon Valley; that techies could and should make a powerful, united case for “Separation of Technology and State.”

Alas, many are capital-D Democrats.

Of course, libertarians tend to see Democrats vs. Republicans as a battle between the leopards and the ocelots: they’re both cats with spots.

Nonetheless, libertarians and classical liberals appear to be finding a foothold in Silicon Valley.

I remember attending conservative/libertarian Lead21 events in the Valley years back. The newest effort is the Lincoln Labs ReBoot conference (I’ll attend).

With Hackathons, policy panels and emphasis on heavy data and outreach to liberty-minded individuals, they’re trying to get the right’s social and political data savvy on par with the outreach super-engine the left enjoys.

Reboot Keynoter Sen. Rand Paul sees massive potential in the heavily left-wing region. He’s cemented attraction to some liberals with his 13 hour talking filibuster against drones and his Berkeley critiques of National Security Agency power drunkenness.

Political predation, like that of grabby taxi commissions and politicians attempting to eliminate Uber and Lyft, has also had an impact, offending liberals and conservatives alike nationwide.

With thousands of rules and regulations with costs approaching $2 trillion annually, the regulatory burden exceeds the burden of taxes and spending in my view.

In “The Libertarian Vision for High Technology,” Adam Thierer and I argued for a hands-off approach to the Internet and technology.

And indeed, the Internet did enjoy a reputation as a freewheeling realm. But regulatory impulses surged from the start.

Attempts past and present to regulate have included:

  • Porn
  • Library filtering
  • Spam
  • Marketing to kids
  • Online gambling
  • Privacy
  • “Cybersecurity” (and even a kill-switch for the Net)
  • Net neutrality (instead of agency neutrality)
  • Ballooning surveillance from Carnivore to the USA Patriot Act to Total Information Awareness to National Security Agency sponging
  • Various initiatives for government to fund basic research, to direct private infrastructure decisions
  • And of course antitrust regulatory activism remains very strong. Rivals and regulators seem to think everyone must share wires, code, desktop space or infrastructure with competitors. Indeed the real lesson of the Microsoft case was that government regards even corporate breakup as valid, thus no intervention is off limits.

It isn’t the libertarian position that things don’t need “regulating” of course; rather what institutions are best suited for the job; it isn’t automatically government compulsion. It might be competition; it might be a kid’s parents.

I never meant to be all weepy and and utopian about the Net, but I was.  I felt it represented a demonstration project for spontaneous order, a chance to show that minimal regulation does work. I’ve been disappointed in politicians of both parties.

Now, the frontier sectors that define the new economy like robotics and custom manufacturing are even more vulnerable to political predation. Uber was just a sample.

Pressures will intensify, especially if the tech sector is further seduced by government “help” through federal “investment” and “steering” like President Obama’s “manufacturing hubs” announced in North Carolina’s Research Triangle and in Chicago.

The technological geniuses in Silicon Valley and elsewhere help pull America’s economic wagon, but ill-conceived and predatory interventions from the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communication Commission and over 50 other departments and agencies could mangle things with mandates and uncertainties.

For example, the recent wave of financial regulations makes it harder to raise capital. Nor can one yet say how small tech companies will contend with Obamacare.

On privacy policy, the question has never been can the market offer degrees of anonymity and degrees of authentication; there have always been exhibitionists and hermits, and entrepreneurs can satisfy both.

The real question is will the government allow privacy, as opposed to, say, making you walk through a nudie scanner.

It matters, because as far as the future of marketing and advertising goes, most transactions occur between strangers. Mandates against private information experimentation while government scoops everything will undermine the “Internet of Everything” promise.

In this respect the automobile “operating system” wars between Google’s Android vs. Apple’s iOS systems hold much promise.

I worry most that unmanned drone and self-driving car policy will morph into a version of public-utility style regulation spearheaded by the largest companies in the space. With roads primarily government-owned, and with Washington and tech utopians ever-infatuated with overarching regulation like net neutrality mandates, blanket cybersecurity rules and federal infrastructure banking and investment, I’m not yet optimistic and foresee cronyism.

The things really needed are the primacy of contracts and new insurance and liability innovations, such as those evolving in the new sharing economy (Uber, Airbnb), and as is urgent in frontier sciences like nanotechnology, biotech and customized medicine.

In this respect bans on electronic gadgets and phone calls on airplanes and cars could interrupt innovations that satisfy everyone. If we can’t figure out market solutions to such relatively simple things, it’s pretty hopeless.

Our choice is never regulation or no regulation, but political discipline vs. competitive discipline.

I tend to see the things regulators think they can magically improve–such as privacy, cybersecurity, safety in nanotechnology and biomedical engineering–as forms of wealth. Like every other kind, these forms of wealth require markets to expand. Regulation can undermine true efficiency and safely and openness, preventing the healthy competitive pressures that grow them.

Governments can’t mimic competition, and they don’t always guarantee fairness and safety. Government failures can be worse than “market failures.”

Regulation in advanced technology ends up being worse than government merely picking winners and losers, because government ends up choosing among business models as such, imposing entire sub-optimal frameworks within which all must operate. Big government is a recipe for economic decline.

That’s damaging, because government shouldn’t be in the technology business, anymore than it should be in our healthcare, our retirement, our lives beyond the absolute minimum necessary.

We are perched at a critical point in business history in terms of the growth of new business models. Failure will cost us decades.

I’ve heard it said that Congress wouldn’t recognize free enterprise if it was on fire and rollerblading naked through the Capitol.

We need entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, and around the globe to help policymakers appreciate economic liberty. The institutions of freedom need business allies. I’m looking forward to meeting some this week at Lincoln Labs.