This is the third of a three part series on the Adam Smith Institute’s Policy Priorities in 2019. In part one, we make the case for creating a more prosperous society post-Brexit. In part two, we discuss how practical liberalism will tackle Britain's burning injustices.
The future is going to be awesome.
Driverless cars reducing traffic congestion and fuel usage while saving millions of lives. Lab grown meat ending animal cruelty and starvation. Nuclear, fusion, micro power plants, renewable and storage technologies providing cheap, reliable and low emission energy. Air taxis flying us to our destination in minutes. A free, open internet built on the superfast 5G mobile network providing limitless entertainment and choice. Drones delivering us orders in minutes. OLED TVs that roll up and down as required. AI improving services like healthcare and meaning we can spend more time with our kids. Robots saving us from monotonous, dangerous, and strenuous work. Desalination and water recycling providing limitless safe water for drinking, agriculture and industry. Blockchain securing, decentralising and reinvigorating finance, trade and the rule of law. Safe, quiet and affordable supersonic flight ending the tyranny of distance across our planet. The sharing economy setting workers and consumers free to voluntarily cooperate, increasing trust and meaning more efficient use of resources. Pills and treatments curing evermore diseases including cancer and extending our lives. Diets customised to the individual. Start-ups using open data to innovate in healthcare, fintech and energy. Hyperloop between cities cutting journey times from hours to minutes.
The Adam Smith Institute is excited, optimistic and ready for the future. In 2019, we will continue to crusade for progress against the neo-philistines who seek to hold back progress with pessimism and needless red tape. If the last two hundred years, since we unleashed human potential in the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, have shown us anything it is that the limits of human potential are our imagination. But this future will only be possible if we are willing to grasp the opportunity. Our public policy must be open to new technology, even when it is disruptive in the short-run, because the costs of stagnation are too high. We know that too much regulation stifles innovation, which not only damages economic growth and wages but also lowers our quality of life and prevents social progress.
Let’s take the future of transport: a topic that the ASI will be talking about more this year. Driverless cars will substantially reduce if not entirely obliterate congestion, emissions, and crashes. Surveys have found that people are broadly excited about the potential for driverless cars – 52% of Britons have a positive view and just 14% have a negative view of self-driving vehicles. Nevertheless, many are fearful about safety. Governments must resist the temptation to respond to the extremely rare cases of crashes – there has been just a single fatally in a fully self-driving car, compared to 1.24 million annual fatalities in conventional cars – by overregulating. There are some complex safety, ethical and insurance issues to address. Nevertheless, it is essential that misguided regulation does not slow down lifesaving technology. The same principle, encouraging innovation, also applies to other new transport technologies, including scooters (share schemes are booming in the United States, however they are banned on British roads and pavement), air taxis, drones, Hyperloop and supersonic travel.
The ASI are techno-optimists. We will continue to make the case for embracing developing technologies from artificial intelligence and big data to lab grown meat and blockchain. There are many, however, who do not share our optimism. There are now endless streams of books and articles predicting a forthcoming jobs apocalypse because of a mixture of robots, artificial intelligence, the sharing economy, and big data. While it is true that new technology has been displacing jobs for centuries, there is a lack of evidence that automation has reduced the number of available jobs. We are now doing safer, less strenuous, more complex, interesting and higher paid jobs than in the past.
Humanity would be much worse off today if the Luddites had succeeded in preventing the mechanisation of factories, or the pessimists who said that computers would lead to joblessness had been allowed to prevent technological development. Meanwhile, the gig economy means that individuals have more flexibility, a trade-off many are willing to make for less job security than a traditional job. Efforts to regulate the sharing economy, such as Transport for London’s ill-fated attempt to ban Uber, at the behest of rent-seeking old industries, will inevitably hurt consumers.
If we want a bright digital future, we must not over regulate the internet. The internet is central to the future of technology: it is not only how we communicate, work, and find information, it is also the necessary backbone for practically all future technology. But there are several threats to the future of the internet. There are increasing calls from the political left and right reign in alleged ‘monopolies’ such as Google, Facebook and Amazon, limit usage of big data, and introduce digital taxes, despite the lack of consumer harm. Pulling the hand break up on the world’s most innovative companies will only make us all poorer in the end.
There are also substantial efforts by governments to undermine encryption, such as those proposed by Prime Minister Theresa May and passed last month in Australia, that will make the internet less safe. We must fight crime and terrorism without threatening cybersecurity and privacy by building backdoors into existing technology. Encryption is not a threat; it is absolutely key to the digital economy and liberty. As American founder Benjamin Franklin is often quoted, ‘Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.’
In the Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, Matthew Ridley argues that ‘ideas have sex,’ that is, over time new technologies, concepts, and governance evolves by the merging and moulding together of ideas, they ‘meet and mate’. Over the last few hundred years, this process has accelerated because of, as Deirdre McCloskey argues, Britain first and subsequently the Anglosphere, the West and the rest of the world, embracing the bourgeoisie love of entrepreneurship, innovation and creation. We must continue to embrace this love of those who create. There’s truly never been a more exciting time to be alive – let’s unleash the opportunities of the future.
Adam Smith Institute’s Policy Priorities 2019