Charles Koch is concerned about where business in this country is going, with good reason given one regulation-happy presidential candidate and one anti-free-trade presidential candidate:
I was born in the midst of the Great Depression, when no one could imagine the revolutionary technological advances that we now take for granted. 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. But there are dangerous signs that the U.S. is turning its back on the principles that foster such advances, particularly in education, business and government. Which path will the country take?
When I attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s, I quickly came to appreciate that scientific and technological progress requires the free and open exchange of ideas. The same holds true for moral and social progress. I have spent more than a half-century trying to apply this lesson in business and my personal life.
It was once widely accepted that progress depends on people challenging and testing each other’s hypotheses. This leads to the creation of knowledge that, when shared, inspires others and spurs the innovation that moves society forward and improves lives. It is a spontaneous process that is deeply collaborative and dependent on the contributions of others. Recall Sir Isaac Newton’s statement that he achieved so much by “standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Scientific progress in seemingly disparate fields creates opportunities for fusion, which is where the greatest innovations often occur. The British writer Matt Ridley has brilliantly described this process as “ideas having sex.” Today, this creation-from-coupling is evident in, for example, the development of driverless cars, which combine advances in transportation and artificial intelligence. When seen through this prism, the opportunities for life-altering innovation are limitless.
Despite our enormous potential for further progress, a clear majority of Americans see a darker future. Some 56% believe their children’s lives will be worse off than their own, according to a January CNN poll. A Rasmussen poll released the following month found that 46% believe America’s best days are behind it. Little more than a third believe better days lie ahead.
I empathize with this fear. 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: Growing attacks on free speech and free association, hostile rhetoric toward immigrants, fear that global trade impoverishes rather than enriches, demands that innovators in cutting-edge industries first seek government permission.
This trajectory takes the U.S. further away from the brighter future that is otherwise within reach. Resisting calls to exclude, divide or restrict—and promoting a free and open society—ought to be the great moral cause of these times. The most urgent tasks involve the key institutions of education, business and government.
Education in America, and particularly higher education, has become increasingly hostile to the free exchange of ideas. On many campuses, a climate of intellectual conformity has replaced open debate and inquiry, stifling discussion on a host of topics ranging from history to science to economics. Dissenters are demonized, ostracized or otherwise treated with scorn and derision. This disrupts the process of discovery and challenge that is at the root of human progress. Holland embraced this philosophy—best expressed by the phrase “Listen even to the other side”—in the 17th century, contributing to it becoming the most prosperous country in the world at the time.
Similarly, in business the proliferation of corporate welfare wastes resources and closes off opportunity for newcomers. It takes many forms—direct subsidies, anticompetitive regulations, mandates, tax credits and carve-outs—all of which tip the scales in favor of established businesses and industries. The losers are invariably the new, disruptive and innovative entrepreneurs who drive progress, along with everyone who stands to benefit from their work. Just ask the citizens of Austin, Texas, who recently lost access to Uber after a campaign backed by its competitors in the taxi industry.
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. See, for example, the FDA’s astronomically expensive and time-consuming drug-approval process, which University of Chicago professor Sam Peltzman argues has caused “more sickness and death than it prevented.” These kinds of harmful barriers to life-enhancing advances exist at every level of government.
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.