The innovation agenda

Ezra Klein has a column about the coronavirus agenda of economist Alex Tabarrok:

Here’s a question I’ve been mulling in recent months: Is Alex Tabarrok right? Are people dying because our coronavirus response is far too conservative?

I don’t mean conservative in the politicized, left-right sense. Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason University and a blogger at Marginal Revolution, is a libertarian, and I am very much not. But over the past year, he has emerged as a relentless critic of America’s coronavirus response, in ways that left me feeling like a Burkean in our conversations.

I don’t have anything to add on Covid-19, but I see the Tabarrok agenda as being centrally about putting innovation first — something I’ve described before. He’s concerned, first and foremost, with applying new ideas to solve important problems and pushes back against policies and institutions that exhibit a status quo bias.

Tabarrok is a libertarian, albeit not an incredibly doctrinaire one. And that’s the community I see most well-represented in the “innovation-first” agenda. It’s not that hard to see why pragmatic libertarians would be drawn to it: if you’re not defending libertarianism on purely principled grounds but on consequences, the argument typically hinges on the idea that innovation and economic growth are incredibly important and that governments often suppress them. Libertarians need a theory of how innovation happens for their arguments to work, so it’s not all that surprising that many of them have one.

But what do liberals have to offer in the discussion around innovation and innovation-fueled growth? In the case of Covid-19, left-of-center thinkers seemed to me quite reasonable in their approach to balancing speed and certainty. But on other innovation issues it can sometimes seem that they are borrowing a page from conservatives, standing athwart technology and yelling stop.

When Ezra has said multiple times on his podcast (paraphrasing) that the left needs a better theory of technology I suspect this is what he means.

I think of some of my own work as speaking to this need. It’s part of what I have had in mind when writing about the welfare state and entrepreneurship: my read of the evidence is that a more generous government support system increases innovation and dynamism. See here and here.

But do liberals care? If skepticism about growth and technology are the norm, the argument that liberal policies can further both won’t hold much weight. I think that’s a mistake. In the long run, ideas-driven growth is a (the?) primary driver of living standards. The Tabarrok’s of the world are right to put it in the foreground. We really do need to worry about status quo bias in our institutions and make innovation policy a central concern. Doing that doesn’t commit you to libertarianism.

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