Economic Opportunity

Charles Koch Opens Up About ‘The Closing of the American Mind’

July 22, 2016

Innovations in countless fields have transformed society and radically improved individual well-being, especially for the least fortunate. Every American’s life is now immeasurably better than it was 80 years ago. What made these dramatic improvements possible was America’s uniquely free and open society, which has brought the country to the cusp of another explosion of life-changing innovation.

This week, Charles Koch took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal to write about the importance of innovation and how current governmental and societal barriers are limiting potential progress. As Mr. Koch writes, “Government, which often has strong incentives to stifle the revolutionary advances that could transform lives, may be the most dangerous. The state often claims to keep its citizens safe, when it is actually inhibiting increased individual well-being.”

The Artificial Barriers to Innovation

The lost value that results from outdated regulatory frameworks has been an area of focus for the Institute, which recently brought together technology policy experts to speak to a sold-out crowd about the future of innovation. Adam Thierer, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and author of Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom, explained that innovation “does more with less, and does it better.”

But does the current regulatory structure for technology operate under the same premise? “There are two different regulatory approaches to technology,” Berin Szoka, president of Tech Freedom, said during the panel. “One says you must know how everything will play out in advance, and the other is more flexible.”

A more flexible framework is preferable, he argued, because some technology carries greater potential impact than others. That reality is not considered in the government’s current approach. “Everything is heavily regulated, even if there aren’t formal regulations,” Szoka said. “It’s a false paradigm.”

Technological developments in the digital sector are beginning to have more far-reaching implications for a new range of technologies—such as 3-D printers and the “Internet of Things”—that could dramatically improve people’s lives. Though we cannot know exactly what these innovations will be, we do know that they will only be possible without restrictive controls and with the freedom to experiment and fail.

Discovery, Innovation, and Growth

Another impediment to innovation, says Mr. Koch, is an education system that is increasingly hostile to the diversity of ideas. “On many campuses, a climate of intellectual conformity has replaced open debate and inquiry, stifling discussion on a host of topics,” he writes. This deterioration is troubling, because free expression is essential to all we, as Americans, hold dear: It allows us to engage with people with whom we disagree through civil debate, and it promotes the free flow of ideas, which leads to discovery, innovation, and growth.

Hostility toward free speech and views that contradict or challenge the “majority” view has long been a tactic used to silence dissent in the face of discrimination and injustice, but social progress depends on the free flow of ideas. “The U.S. is already far down the path to becoming a less open and free society, and the current cultural and political atmosphere threatens to make the situation worse. … This trajectory takes the U.S. further away from the brighter future that is otherwise within reach,” Mr. Koch writes.

Although Charles Koch acknowledges that there is much cynicism over the direction America is heading (“A clear majority of Americans see a darker future. … I empathize with this fear,”), he remains hopeful that embracing innovation and a diversity of ideas can advance societal progress:

Unleashing innovation, no matter what form it takes, is the essential component of truly helping people improve their lives. The material and social transformations in my own days have been nothing short of astonishing, with a marked improvement in well-being for all Americans. If the country can unite around a vision for a tolerant, free and open society, it can achieve even greater advances, and a brighter future for everyone, in the years ahead.

Read the full op-ed, and learn more about the Charles Koch Institute’s technology and innovation initiative.