What to Do About Drones: A Symposium

[This post first appeared in the June 19, 2018, issue of The Lighthouse, the weekly newsletter of the Independent Institute. To stay current with Independent’s latest work to boldly advance free societies, enter your email address here.]

Once known only as military weapons or hobby toys, drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles—UAVs) are predicted to play increasingly visible roles in a broad range of industries, including fire control, industrial inspections, crop dusting, real estate listings, and retail delivery. What does the age of the drone mean for human freedom and well-being? In his introduction to the symposium in the summer issue of The Independent Review, journal co-editor Christopher J. Coyne (George Mason Univ.) stresses that UAVs offer significant potential benefits, but also pose new risks such as more lethal power and opportunities for civil-rights violations.

Whatever rules emerge for dealing with risks to personal privacy, technology policy expert Ryan Hagemann (Niskanen Center) recommends that they be flexible enough to cover other new technologies that also threaten privacy. As for mitigating clashes over increasingly crowded airspace, Independent Institute Research Fellow Randall G. Holcombe (Florida State Univ.) calls for making drones responsible for avoiding all other aircraft, manned and unmanned alike. Along with reducing airspace congestion far more efficiently than the current air-traffic control system, this one rule change would also make the system more decentralized and responsive.

But what of government’s use of drones for national security purposes? Law school professor Milena Sterio (Cleveland-Marshall College of Law) explains that the covert status of counterterrorism and military campaigns makes a thorough assessment of government UAVs impossible. Moreover, the executive branch’s ability to act as the judge, jury, and executioner raises major concerns for the rule of law. Closing the symposium, Coyne and Independent Institute Research Fellow Abigail R. Hall (University of Tampa) examine what they call “the drone paradox”: the possibility that military drone strikes to combat terrorists may actually provoke non-state terrorism. After surveying numerous reports, Coyne and Hall conclude that anti-U.S. militant groups have taken advantage of U.S. drone strikes for propaganda and recruitment purposes.


Carl P. Close is Senior Editor and Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Assistant Editor of The Independent Review, and co-editor with Robert Higgs of the Independent books The Challenge of Liberty: Classical Liberalism Today, Opposing the Crusader State: Alternatives to Global Interventionism, and Re-Thinking Green: Alternatives to Environmental Bureaucracy.

Carl Close is Research Fellow and Senior Editor for The Independent Institute and Assistant Editor of The Independent Review and editor of The Lighthouse, The Independent Institute’s weekly e-mail newsletter.
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