“Permission to Innovate”: A response to Michael Munger

Here’s a comment I wrote in response to an article by Michael Munger, “Permissionless innovation: the fuzzy idea that rules our lives” (Learn Liberty, Sept. 19, 2017). The quoted passage at the beginning is drawn from Munger’s article, but I’d suggest reading the whole article first to get the context. (I’ve slightly edited one phrase in the version below without changing the meaning.)

There are two kinds of obstacles to permissionless innovation: requiring permission from regulators and requiring permission from competitors.

How about requiring permission from your boss, or the administrative hierarchy above you in your organization? That’s not what’s usually meant by the word “regulator,” but even apart from cases where admin functions as a proxy for external regulators, a boss is the most obvious and proximate source of regulation and of the requirement to get permission to innovate.

I teach at a university, and my university’s faculty handbook devotes page after page to the permissions required for innovation, including the permission required to express innovative thoughts to outside sources that might (in principle, somehow, possibly) “reflect on the University.” The same is true of innovation involving student surveys, events, pedagogy, and the like. Mutatis mutandis, the same thing was true of every non-education corporation I’ve ever worked for. There are Standard Operating Procedures, and deviation from them is regarded as the basis for a reprimand or termination.

[Munger’s] article treats the topic of permissionless innovation as though the basic issue were a matter of government regulation stifling innovation (in one of two ways), or a relatively unregulated environment in which innovation takes place without permission. But this overlooks the fact that both environments are compatible with steep demands for permission that are built into employment contracts that are themselves produced under conditions of asymmetric bargaining power. Though technically “consented to,” the consent in question has the same kind of substantive value as the inevitable “consent search” to which one “consents” when one walks into an airport or train station.

Call it consent or call it something else, but the fact remains: if a security officer is searching you, you need permission to move a muscle of your own volition; if someone employs you, you serve at their pleasure, and you need their permission to innovate. In neither case is there any reason to think that reasonable requests will be accommodated–unless you happen to be dealing with reasonable people. And you often aren’t.

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