Charles Koch Foundation Executive Director Ryan Stowers recently sat down with Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) President and CEO Emily Chamlee-Wright to discuss how IHS-supported scholars are fostering principles-based, bottom-up solutions to the world’s toughest challenges. This article is the second in a three-part series. Read the first installment here.
STOWERS: IHS’s mission is to support scholars who seek to achieve a society in which all people have an opportunity to flourish. Broadly, what do your grantees do?
CHAMLEE-WRIGHT: We work with scholars who are grappling with complex social, economic, and collective action challenges, challenges where the stakes are high, but the answers are not obvious. By supporting and connecting a robust community of scholars who are applying the principles of free societies — societies that drive solutions rooted in individual liberty, equality before the law, and the dignity of all people — we can drastically make a difference, not just for the career and intellectual development of individual scholars, but for the development and application of these ideas overall.
STOWERS: One issue policymakers have been tackling for decades is immigration policy. How are IHS-supported scholars driving this conversation?
CHAMLEE-WRIGHT: I think first of Ben Powell at Texas Tech whose book, The Economics of Immigration, is a terrific example of the application of classical liberal principles to immigration. In contrast to a great deal of commentary on the topic, Ben’s work examines how immigration actually affects the culture, wages, employment, economic growth, and tax revenues of receiving countries and then offers policies based on these findings. We featured his book in a research seminar so others can internalize and build upon the approach Ben is taking.
To offer solutions to any problem, we first need to know the facts on the ground. That’s why we support Giovanni Peri at the University of California, Davis. Giovanni has developed rich datasets and we’re supporting a project that gets those resources into the hands of other scholars who can put them to work in their own research. Our bet is that by supporting evidence-based research on the topic, we can help break through the partisan noise around immigration and pave the way toward common sense, positive reform.
STOWERS: When addressing complex challenges, you talk a lot about solutions that are driven from the “bottom-up” rather than top-down. What’s the insight here? Why should we be on the lookout for bottom-up ideas and solutions?
CHAMLEE-WRIGHT: Great question. Let’s consider a complex issue like the opportunities and threats surrounding artificial intelligence (AI). The technology is evolving so rapidly that many are concerned our ability to innovate is outpacing our ability to evolve ethical standards. The default response to concerns like these is to impose top-down federal rules aimed to control AI’s evolution. The assumption at work here is that government rule makers have superior foresight and ability to direct the innovation process. But what will in fact happen is that controls of this kind will slow the pace by which AI can address serious problems, like scaling medical diagnosis and treatment to populations that currently do not have easy access to medical services. Just as bad, it will slow the pace by which we learn how to address the challenges that AI presents.
We’re working with an emerging community of scholars who are finding ways to address these governance challenges from the bottom-up by, for example, building ethical principles into AI design. But there’s no way to know what those solutions are without a great deal of openness and experimentation. If we try to control the evolution of the technology from the top-down we rob ourselves of this discovery process.
STOWERS: One issue where we are seeing many top-down mandates is corporate governance. What are IHS-supported scholars doing in this area?
CHAMLEE-WRIGHT: I really love the work that Florida Atlantic University’s Siri Terjesen is doing in this space. We’re partnering with Siri to build a network of classical liberal scholars in business schools who are examining corporate governance concerns. This issue is very much in the spotlight right now, with a lot of ideological posturing on all sides. One of the reasons we love working with Siri is her well-earned reputation for examining arguments on every side of an issue and then evaluating the efficacy of policies that have been implemented. Gender diversity on corporate boards is one issue she’s looking into, and her research indicates the best way for companies to tackle this challenge is not to impose a mandate from the top-down, but to build rich networks of connection within civil society itself — within the communities in which companies are embedded. She has found this bottom-up approach provides a more effective and much stickier set of solutions.
STOWERS: IHS scholars are working on numerous other challenges, but what are some of the most exciting projects that have come across your desk recently? What are you charged about?
CHAMLEE-WRIGHT: Sure, let’s go back to AI. We want to support scholars looking into what it would look like to have classical liberal ideas inform AI design. AI has massive potential to drive human progress, but there are real concerns that need to be addressed. We want to look into what aspects of the classical liberal tradition could help us build an AI design that addresses serious questions like, how do we ensure, through better design, that AI makes judgements that align with the principles of just conduct and pose no threat to human liberty.
Industrial policy is another area. Right now in the United States, we have a tragic loop where protectionism leads to cronyism, which, in turn, leads to weaker performance and then, ultimately, to more calls for protectionism. We have provided sabbatical support to Nicole Wu at the University of Toronto who is examining the political consequences of automation and technological change within the workplace. She wants to understand why, in some contexts, workers resist technological change and why, in others, they embrace it. I’m really excited to see what she finds and how it can help get us out of that tragic loop.