Backlash Against Sharing Economy Worthy Of The Luddite Label

John Bicknell | Executive Editor, Watchdog.org

Is the brief bloom of the sharing economy about to be trampled under the feet of big government? In Austin, Chicago and New York, it certainly appears that way.

Elegist Thomas Gray foresaw this in the mid-18th century:

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,

And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

But not even George II, Gray’s sovereign at the time of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” was as imperious as the politicians who presume to tell you who can sleep in your home.

For decades, liberals have insisted that they wanted to get government out of our bedrooms. Now, they’re insisting that government should have access to your bedroom to see who is staying there, and to make rules about how and when.

This is, of course, all in the guise of the public good. All-knowing politicians see it as their duty to protect you from the potentially bad choices you might make, such as renting your cabin on the river to that family of four from Pittsburgh, who might disturb the neighbors by staying up too late some night playing Parcheesi.

What it’s really all about is protecting favored constituencies and defending the sclerotic industries that support entrenched politicians.

Efforts to kill the golden goose of Airbnb in Chicago are led by aldermen who have accepted tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the hotel industry. And, it’s not like Chicago is the best-run city in America these days. Trusting the people who have run it into the ground to make the right decisions about anything is, to be charitable, a toss-up.

When Uber and Lyft attempt to compete with inefficient and expensive taxi service in places like Austin and Boston, politicians defending the inefficient and seeking to increase their own power are the ones who benefit from franchise and other fees paid by the cab companies. You pay, in higher prices and worse service. They simply don’t care.

None of this is new. Resistance to economic change and technological innovation is as old as modernity.

When young Englishman Ned Ludd smashed up a pair of power looms in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, he had little idea he would lend his name to a movement that decades later would become emblematic of the backward-looking tendency to halt progress.

Today’s modern Luddites do him honor – and reveal their ignorance  every time they insist on over-regulating innovative technologies and killing the initiative of citizen entrepreneurs who are trying to create a more dynamic economy.

The message from those entrepreneurs to their government is, get out of our way and we’ll make everybody’s life better.

The message sent back is, shut up, we know what’s best, and you’re not it.

Government will hang on as long as it can, but as Jeff Goldblum poetically pointed out in Jurassic Park, life finds a way.

“A widely publicized report commissioned by the Freelancers Union in 2014 found what appears to be strong evidence of a growing gig economy: About a third of the workforce, 53 million Americans, are now freelancers, the report says,” Eli Lehrer, president of the free-market R Street Institute, noted recently in National Affairs.

At the same time, Lehrer warns, while the benefits of the “gig economy” are many and varied, it isn’t happening fast enough, and one of the main stumbling blocks is government.

“Rather than approve proposals that more or less outlaw gig work on platforms – as many states and cities led by liberals are considering – government should instead enact policies that promote a gig economy,” Lehrer urges. That includes lifting restrictions on sharing-economy businesses such as Uber and Airbnb, but also easing overly burdensome licensing requirements that stifle competition.

If the cronies of Austin, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York could figure out a way, they’d tax, regulate or nationalize Thomas Gray’s country church yard. For they certainly appear determined to ensure that the bloom of the sharing economy will waste its sweetness on the arid imaginations of power-hungry politicians and their craven allies.

It’s up to everyone else to ensure that doesn’t happen.

John Bicknell is executive editor of Watchdog.org, a nonprofit journalism project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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