Tech Libertarian? Regulation Comes Only as a Last Resort

by Mike Wendy on January 20, 2011

I attended an event yesterday, hosted by former PFF colleague, Berin Szoka, for his new venture, – a libertarian think tank, which focuses on techpolicy (or, “Internet optimism”), based in Washington, DC.

TechFreedom's Berin Szoka

At the first panel, another former PFF colleague, Adam Thierer, was getting dinged for being libertarian; that, as one speaker faulted him for, his views that the “marketplace alone” will solve everything are nonsense.

Adam responded that he’s not an anarchist (which was seemingly implied in the “attack”); that government has some legitimate role in setting baseline rules, such as in intellectual property, etc.  But then the panel moved on from there.

The exchange got me thinking on the difficulty of expressing what libertarian philosophy is without resort to stating what one is not (i.e., “I am not an anarchist”).  And so, I offer these brief notes – without much math involved – on what I look at when viewing tech policy through a libertarian lens:

Mercatus' Adam Thierer

  1. Some government regulation can be beneficial.  I can look around most any place that I stand and see the benefits of government regulation.  Thus, saying “Never” to regulation is a non-starter.  It can work.  But…
  2. …When addressing an issue that may call for a public policy response – one where consumers have been harmed, or are in imminent, real threat of being harmed – government regulation should not be the starting point / default position.
  3. Rather, we should look first to the advance of technology, marketplace guidance / competition, transparency / consumer tools, industry best practices, and current enforcement backstops, all which might more adequately, and flexibly, police the “problem.”
  4. If these methods cannot “fix” whatever is “broken,” then a government regulatory response may be justified.  Such response, if necessary, should be narrow, limited, and confined to clear authority within any underlying statute / enumerated powers of the Constitution.

For tech policy, government regulation isn’t automatically bad.  In fact, it can sometimes help.  But, getting to that state calls for some high hurdles because, more often that not, regulation remains the least desirable and inflexible approach to address any given challenge.  Consequently, it should only be imposed as a last resort, when all else has failed.

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