Bill De Blasio, Economic conservatism, Erik Sherman, Gig economy, Hillary Clinton, Megan McArdle, Overtime rules, rent seeking, Sharing economy, St. Louis Metropolitan Taxi Commission, Taskrabbit, Taxi deserts, Uber
Big government is an inherently conservative enterprise when it comes to protecting the economic status quo. It frequently acts on behalf of entrenched interests by quashing innovation and competition. This is well illustrated by resistance to the “gig economy” (or “sharing economy”) and companies like Uber and Taskrabbit. The gig economy is growing rapidly because it is often more affordable than traditional channels and it offers tremendous convenience. Enabled by the internet, customized tasks or “gigs” can be performed anywhere for anyone demanding them. My son in New York City just found a talented carpenter through an on-line app, who stopped by his apartment in the evening and mounted a big-screen TV on the wall. The service he provided was not new, but the deal was facilitated and even enhanced by technology in a way that in some cases is reordering economic relationships. The competitive pressure this can create is drawing resistance with the aid of government power.
In St. Louis, there is an ongoing conflict between the Taxicab Commission and Uber, which has not yet gained entry to the market. Three of eight members of the commission own cab companies. They have succeeded in keeping Uber and Lyft out of the market for over a year. A resolution might be possible soon, but the commission is still haggling with Uber over insurance coverage levels, fingerprints and background checks.
On the national stage, the biggest issue surrounding the gig economy is the formal relationship between workers and any company they might represent. Should those workers be treated as independent contractors or employees? Companies like Uber insist that their drivers are independent, but the government would prefer that they be treated as employees. In some cases, that would oblige employers to offer certain benefits. Erik Sherman covers this issue in “How the U.S. Just Knee-Capped the ‘Gig Economy’“. According to Uber, most of its drivers are part-time and like it that way, so it’s not clear that the government can force Uber (under current rules) to pay for extra benefits, or how many of its drivers that would affect. Still, it is instructive that the government is applying pressure in this area, potentially undermining competitive forces and voluntary relationships formed between innovative businesses and their working partners.
Big government advocates are extremely uncomfortable with the gig economy, but there are a fair number of progressives who place a high value on their ability to transact with “gigsters”. Politicians such as Hillary Clinton, who “skewered” the gig economy last week, risk fracturing their own base by advocating steps that could threaten innovative enterprises like Uber. In another statist attack on Uber, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio recently proposed to “cap” the company’s growth while the city studied its impact on traffic. Fortunately, he has backed down.
Progressives should love the value that the gig economy brings to segments of society whose members otherwise can’t afford or can’t access traditional services. For example, residents of low-income neighborhoods often find themselves living in “taxi deserts” when forced to rely on the entrenched cab companies. Megan McArdle makes this point in “Uber Serves the Poor by Going Where Taxis Don’t“. Aside from the technology angle, this is basic capitalism in action. When government steps in to restrict the conditions under which services may be offered, and raises the cost, it lends a degree of monopoly power to the entrenched providers and blocks the diffusion of services to all segments of the market. This should be seen as antithetical to the progressive agenda, but politicians and cronies don’t always see it that way.
The advantages of the gig economy have been made possible by technology, but another key element is that it has unleashed a flood of voluntary activity to fill gaps that were heretofore inadequately addressed. There have been some principled objections to the business practices of Uber and other gig sponsors, which often involve details regarding the splitting of revenue. Despite these concerns, there are benefits to workers who choose to participate, including a great deal of flexibility in choosing working hours and conditions. Second guessing their motives and the opportunity costs they face is a purely speculative and presumptuous exercise. Furthermore, on other fronts, government has been engaged in a seemingly intentional effort to make only part-time work available, as with recent changes in overtime rules and Obamacare regulations; at least the gig economy fits into that framework.
Traditional service providers, some of whom enjoyed government-enforced monopolies, have reacted to new competition by calling for protection. This rent-seeking behavior is typical in the history of regulation, which has often taken root under strong pressure for protection by entrenched interests. Progressives should reject this perverse form of economic conservatism.