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Instagram and the Freedom to Innovate

The makers of Instagram, a popular iPhone photo-sharing app, recently sold their company to Facebook for $1 billion. The company was founded a mere 18 months ago by a pair of twentysomethings. It has only 12 employees and brings in no revenue. No big deal. The Wall Street Journal has the full scoop. Such stories are becoming ever more common and ever less surprising, with the rate of creativity and innovation accelerating to a point where value is ever more about intangibles like consumer attention, and tomorrow’s economic landscape is ever less predictable. Yet there are predictors and planners aplenty, with President Obama leading the pack with his grand top-down schemes for manufacturing might, green energy everything and my personal favorite, high-speed choo-choo domination. We must create an economy that is “built to last,” Obama said in his recent State of the Union address—“built,” of course, by that same select group of enlightened government “investors” who brought us Solyndra. Although photo-sharing apps aren’t likely to be high on Obama’s list of save-the-world technologies, we should remind ourselves that before the inception of Instagram (or Twitpic or Facebook or whatever), such tools were also not too high on our lists of let’s-have-some-fun technologies. Similarly, the iPhone, Instagram’s primary vehicle, came before any substantial public craving demanded it in any overtly conscious way. The creators of these products anticipated a need or desire and created. Badda bing badda boom. The problem for the predictors and planners is that despite whatever economic or moral arguments they so cunningly concoct to justify shoving widgets X, Y and Z down our throats, one big, stubborn, complicating reality persists: as innovation continues, needs and desires change. You can shake the Almighty Government Eight Ball all day long, but even if you get it right and are able to calculate some end-game net profitability for artificially propping up Failing Company X or Greenie Wizard Lab Y, who knows if such a plan will stay workable or cost-effective by tomorrow? Obama can toot the Subsidize Wind Farms horn till the ears of his great grandchildren are bleeding with debt, but what happens when Engineer Suzie wakes up the next morning with an idea for a cheaper, greener, more effective solution? Sorry Suzie, but we’ve already rolled the dice. If you haven’t noticed, this is a clear economic problem (e.g. ethanol), yet coming at it from that angle will be unlikely to influence many progressives, whose positions, whether they admit it or not, rest mostly on rash-and-puffy moral superiority and a quest for control (e.g. “Smart Cars contribute to the common good, not your cute little digital Polaroids”). I’ll save those arguments for another day, because within the economic argument against this contorted game of Pick Your Favorites lies a different moral message about the way we view humans and human potential. In short: Needs and desires changebecause people change. To assume that the government can successfully pick winners and losers economically—whether with products, business or entire industries—is to assume that we humans live, or want to live, in a static world filled with static individuals who conceive of themselves in static terms. We will always buy what we currently buy, know what we currently know and pursue absolutely nothing of real value unless ole Goodie Government tells us otherwise. But that’s not the way humans are, or, at the very least, that’s not what we were intended to be. As much as folks might want to wield our semi-free economy toward constructing temples to Gaia and propping up eat-your-veggies initiatives, the market is or should primarily be about facilitating human engagement and human interaction. Such facilitation is integral to empowering human vocation, which should primarily be informed by God and any on-the-ground cultural, social and religious institutions. All those select progressive “moral” causes might be fine-and-dandy as individual vocations in individual markets on any individual day of the year, but who is to say they are better or more desirable than innovating a new way to use our smartphones? (Don’t answer that, Joe Biden.) To artificially elevate these pet products and causes over others will never be feasible or sustainable on an economic level precisely because such motions ignore and/or subvert the reality that we were not created to be robots, micro-managed by some lofty Mother Brain into a progressive (or conservative) economic cookie cutter. By letting the market work—by letting entrepreneurs like the guys at Instagram innovate and meet those previously unforeseen $1 billion needs and desires—we are freeing people to be people. That is a healthy, prosperity-friendly position—in far more ways than one.