… I think that economists have to approach their role as engineers with great humility. There’s a lot we don’t understand. Economics is still an early science. But let me read you the quote from Hayek that I included in my book. This is a quote from his free-market manifesto, The Road to Serfdom. And he wrote, “There is, in particular, all the difference between deliberately creating a system within which competition will work as beneficially as possible and passively accepting institutions as they are.”
So, that was Hayek. He understood that what makes a market free is that it has rules that allow it to work freely. And one of the metaphors I use in the book is of a wheel that can rotate freely. It’s not rotating in a vacuum. It has an axle and it has well-oiled bearings. And over time–people have been designing markets for millennia. And often the process of trial and error leads to better and better markets. But it can be a lengthy process of trial and error. And as we better understand what is required for marketplaces to help markets work freely we can sometimes intervene. And, you said ‘top down,’ but earlier you talked about Uber and Airbnb. Those are marketplaces that are not top down. People have been designing marketplaces forever. It’s what we do.
John O. McGinnis, the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University, says we are in the midst of a sharing economy, and that’s a good thing. (Don’t get all socialist on me; a sharing economy is one driven by service and technology. We are not going to have to pool our food in the commune.) McGinnis says this type of economy is good for liberty as well.
There are three basic features of a sharing economy:
- It reduces costs, by matching up real-time idle services and resources with people in need.
- It employs the hard-to-employ, say, people who need a very flexible schedule.
- It creates new jobs – jobs that didn’t exist before.
On-demand ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft are on the rise, allowing smartphone users to request cab drivers with the touch of a button. But though the services are popular with consumers and drivers alike, they’re finding less favor among their taxi-company competitors and the unions and government bureaucrats who protect them.
Calling for increased regulation, entrance fees, and insurance requirements, competitors are grappling to retain their privileged, insulated status. In Miami-Dade County, an area with particularly onerous restrictions and regulations, Diego Feliciano, president of the South Florida Taxicab Association, argues that the change is bound to “ruin the very thing it’s trying to improve,” all because it threatens the fat cats who pay his salary, and who can afford to jump through the regulatory hoops. “When looking at new technologies,” he writes, “we must also be sure people’s basic civil rights and the safety of the riding public are protected.”
Bringing these petty municipal battles into the limelight, actor Ashton Kutcher, an early investor in Uber, recently appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live, decrying “antiquated legislation,” “old-school monopolies,” and “old-school governments” who continue to stand in the way of innovation and consumer demand. In areas like Miami, Kutcher says, there is a “Mafioso mentality” against letting the “new guys” in.
Indeed, as Miami’s Feliciano aptly demonstrates, the protectionist mindset only sees what is, viewing economic activity in static and self-centered terms, and failing to recognize or value the type of opportunity and possibility that comes with increased freedom and ownership. Feliciano claims that he’s interested in “safety” and “basic civil rights,” but the only folks being protected are those with power and pocketbooks. (more…)