A pandemic is no time for bad governance. As the COVID-19 crisis intensified, bureaucrats and elected officials slumbered. Government regulations prevented many in the private sector from helping with response efforts. The result was a sudden surge of evasive entrepreneurialism and technological civil disobedience. With institutions and policies collapsing around them, many people took advantage of cutting‐edge technological capabilities to evade public policies that were preventing practical solutions from emerging.
Examples were everywhere. Distilleries started producing hand sanitizers to address shortages while average folks began sharing do‐it‐yourself sanitizer recipes online. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) looked to modify hand sanitizer guidelines quickly to allow for it, but few really cared because those rules weren’t going to stop them. Gray markets in face masks, medical face shields, and respirators developed. Some people and organizations worked together to make medical devices using off‐the‐shelf hardware and open source software. More simply, others just fired up sewing machines to make masks—and then, faced with an emerging public health consensus, the guidance from the federal government shifted dramatically: where formerly ordinary people were instructed not to buy or use masks, within a matter of days, the policy reversed, and all were encouraged to make and use cloth protective masks.
Meanwhile, doctors and nurses started “writing the playbook for treating coronavirus patients on the fly” by improvising treatments and then sharing them on social media. A few doctors even converted breathing machines to ventilators themselves using 3-D printed parts to address shortages for their patients even though the FDA had not yet authorized it.
Social media sites were also suddenly filled with discussions about how average people might come together to build tools or share information to assist with virus testing or treatments. A 17‐year‐old used his coding skills to build one of the most popular coronavirus‐tracking websites in the world (ncov2019.live) after noticing how hard it was to use government sites. And two high school science teachers in Tennessee set up testing operations in their school lab to help reduce testing time in their area.
Meanwhile, journalists and columnists like the Wall Street Journal’s Andy Kessler cheered on such activity, encouraging the public to “innovate from your couch.” Modern digital technologies and platforms that had been pariahs and the target of a regulatory‐minded “techlash” just a few months earlier suddenly became essential public services that were showered with praise for helping people cope with social distancing and the solitude associated with shelter‐in‐place requirements. Headlines in major media outlets explained how “Facebook Is More Trustworthy than the President” and “Twitter Is Making the Coronavirus World a Better Place.”
Philanthropists like Bill Gates were also funding their own solutions. The former Microsoft founder and CEO pointed out that, in an effort to find testing solutions and vaccines, private groups like his Gates Foundation could likely mobilize faster than governments. Gates likely had grown frustrated with government responses after a Seattle‐based lab that the Gates Foundation funded figured out an effective way to test for coronavirus, only to be blocked from expanding it by over‐cautious federal bureaucrats. Frustrated by federal intransigence, that Seattle lab started testing for COVID-19 anyway to prove they indeed had an effective test. Commenting on the case study, the New York Times expressed exasperation about “how existing regulations and red tape—sometimes designed to protect privacy and health—have impeded the rapid rollout of testing nationally.”
Wait, Isn’t All This Illegal?
What is interesting about all these examples of bottom‐up innovation and evasive entrepreneurialism is that they are remarkably inspiring, but also mostly illegal. Almost all these activities butted up against longstanding regulations governing medical devices, practices, or therapies. Some of those rules are enforced by large and powerful federal bureaucracies like the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Others take the form of state‐based occupational licensing limitations or certificate‐of‐need laws, which require healthcare providers to first obtain permission before they open or expand their facilities or services. This crazy quilt of medical laws and regulations accumulated steadily over time, creating what constitutional scholar Timothy Sandefur calls a “permission society,” which values proceduralism and conformity over practicality and common sense.
Eventually, however, the mountains of red tape that the permission society is built upon start to collapse under their own weight. Laws and agencies that previously commanded obedience are now viewed as an opaque, ossified, and confusing morass of one‐size‐fits‐all mandates, prohibitions, and penalties that actually undermine the very health goals they were put in place to achieve. Suddenly, headlines in every major newspaper screamed of how, as it pertained to virus testing procedures, “The Government Failed” (Wall Street Journal) because of “Flawed Tests, Red Tape and Resistance” (Washington Post) and this resulted in “The Lost Month” (New York Times) in the United States.
Eventually, people take notice of how regulators and their rules encumber entrepreneurial activities, and they act to evade them when public welfare is undermined. Working around the system becomes inevitable when the permission society becomes so completely dysfunctional and counterproductive.
Technological Empowerment vs. the Status Quo
What’s going on here, and what lessons can we derive from it?
In a new Cato Institute book, Evasive Entrepreneurs and the Future of Governance, I document how the sort of behavior we have recently witnessed was growing rapidly even before the COVID-19 crisis. In many different contexts, evasive entrepreneurs—innovators who don’t always conform to social or legal norms—are using new technological capabilities to circumvent traditional regulatory systems. They at least want to put pressure on public policymakers to reform or selectively enforce laws and regulations that are outmoded, inefficient, or counterproductive.
Evasive entrepreneurs rely on a strategy of permissionless innovation in both the business world and the political arena. They push back against the permission society by creating exciting new products and services without always receiving the blessing of public officials before doing so. While evasive entrepreneurialism has always been with us to some extent, many of the responses to the pandemic would not have been possible even just a few decades ago. Recent advancements have supercharged in a more technologically empowered world of information abundance and decentralized, inexpensive tools.
As I show in the book, evasive entrepreneurs are taking advantage of the growth of what we might think of as technologies of freedom or resistance. These are devices and platforms that let citizens circumvent (or perhaps just ignore) public policies that limit their liberty or freedom to innovate or to enjoy the fruits of innovation. These can include common tools like smartphones, computers, and various new interactive platforms, as well as more specialized technologies like cryptocurrencies, private drones, immersive technologies (like virtual reality), 3D printers, the “Internet of Things,” and sharing economy platforms and services. But that list just scratches the surface. When the public uses tools such as these to explicitly evade public policies on moral grounds because they find then offensive, illogical, or perhaps just annoying, we can think of that as technological civil disobedience.
Common Sense Prevails
Evasive entrepreneurialism and technological civil disobedience accelerated during the pandemic because both the practicality and morality of government policies came into question in stark fashion. The first month of the crisis witnessed “a torrent of governmental incompetence that is breathtaking in scale,” my Mercatus colleague Scott Sumner argues. “There are regulations so bizarre that if put in a novel no one would believe them,” he notes. “In contrast, the private sector has reacted fairly well, and has been far ahead of the government in most areas.”
Indeed, the pandemic has been a stress test for our institutions, and many of them have failed it. Confusing rules and inflexible agencies that should have been reformed years ago were suddenly exposed and judged harshly. Philip K. Howard, founder of Common Good, says that “Covid‐19 is the canary in the bureaucratic mine.” Bloated bureaucracies and overbearing regulatory systems, he argues, have created a “toxic atmosphere that silenced common sense” and managed to “institutionalize failure.” Cato’s Paul Matzko has documented how the FDA has been particularly guilty of blocking sensible forms of progress on simple things like face mask production or distribution.
While countless others lambasted the practical failures of our institutions, the morality of government policies was also coming into focus. Why should citizens have their innovative efforts to help others stifled at seemingly every juncture? Must we really follow the law when it undercuts the basic human need to care for others and ourselves?
These are the issues addressed in my new book, which explains the practical reasons why evasive entrepreneurialism is on the rise and then provides a moral defense of it. When innovators and average citizens use tools and technological capabilities to pursue a living, enjoy new experiences, or improve the human condition, they often disrupt legal or social norms in the process. That is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, evasive entrepreneurialism can transform our society for the better because it can help expand the range of life‐enriching (and often life‐saving) innovations. Evasive entrepreneurialism can help citizens pursue lives of their own choosing—both as creators looking for the freedom to earn a living and as individuals looking to discover and enjoy important new goods and services.
Defending evasive entrepreneurialism is easy after it occurs, but few defend it before or as it is happening. I argue in the book that the freedom to innovate is essential to human betterment—for each of us individually and for civilization as a whole—and that freedom deserves to be taken more seriously today. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this more apparent than ever before.
There are few things more human than acts of invention. At its root, innovation involves efforts to discover new and better ways of solving practical human needs and wants. People have a right to innovate and create technologies because they possess a more general right to take steps to improve their lot in life and the lives of others around them. When misguided or archaic government programs and policies blocked that potential during the pandemic, people began ignoring or evading them. That was both practically sensible and morally justifiable.
Innovation as the New Checks and Balances
By extension, the response to the pandemic has proven the second thesis set forth in my book: Evasive entrepreneurialism and technologically enabled civil disobedience can actually help us improve government by keeping public policies fresh, sensible, and in line with common sense and the consent of the governed. Evasiveness and technological disruption can act as a sort of relief valve or circuit breaker to counteract negative pressures in the system before things break down completely. By challenging legislators and regulators to reevaluate the wisdom of their policies, evasive entrepreneurs can help us break political logjams and force governments to become more adaptive and accountable.
The proof is in the pudding. As the crisis unfolded, agencies at the federal, state, and local levels were forced to suspend hundreds of regulations that were clearly undermining helpful responses. These “rule departures” would not have been necessary if governments had engaged in periodic spring cleanings earlier. When COVID-19 hit, it became essential to suspend or repeal hundreds of misguided old rules that clearly undermined public health. The only question now is whether those inefficient, counterproductive policies will be put back on the books to do harm again in the next crisis.
But even before the current crisis, rule departures by government actors were becoming more common because even government officials could no longer understand their own rules. Just as private citizens have increasingly resorted to evasive techniques to get things done, many regulatory agencies have given up trying to “go by the book” themselves because endless regulatory accumulation has made it impossible to understand what the law means.
My book documents many cases of public officials essentially ignoring their own policies and making up governance solutions as they go along. This is another sign of profound institutional failure, yet it should also give us some hope that even policymakers themselves now realize that government cannot just grow forever without breaking down at some point. The need for comprehensive reform is now abundantly clear, and the pandemic has moved the so‐called “Overton Window” (i.e., the acceptable range of possible policy reforms) on many fronts.
A New Approach to Governance
Policymakers need a new approach for technological governance that is more in line with modern realities. Flexibility and humility will be essential. Regulators do not need to throw out the old rulebooks altogether, though. Some precautionary rules still make sense, particularly in cases involving extreme risk. But why not embrace the entrepreneurial spirit of the citizenry and allow more experimental trials, flexible testing procedures, and perhaps even prizes for particularly innovative ideas?
When enforcing the rules that remain on the books, policymakers should also consider targeted waivers and ex post regulatory reviews as opposed to ex ante regulatory prohibitions on any and all evasive innovations. Liability rules can also be tweaked so innovators do not have to live in constant fear of getting sued for trying to make the world a better place. Finally, post‐market monitoring and recall notices can also be used to ensure flexible experiments have some regulatory guardrails.
But shutting down creative solutions and unique thinking simply because they run counter to some crusty old rulebook is never the right response. We should view evasive entrepreneurialism as an important part of a broader discovery process that incorporates the profound importance of ongoing, decentralized, trial‐and‐error experimentation to the process of societal learning and improvement. Lawmakers should find a way to accommodate a little more outside‐the‐box thinking and innovating—and not just when our lives are on the line.