How to write an Alternet criticism of libertarianism: 1) Cite an unpleasant aspect of Ayn Rand’s philosophy; 2) use the news topic of the day as an exemplar of that unpleasantness; and 3) treat it as somehow symbolic of the fundamental nature of the entire libertarian movement. In this case, I’m not so much interested in Richard Eskow’s lazy, by-the-numbers attack on libertarianism (“The Sharing Economy is a Lie: Uber, Ayn Rand, and the Truth About Tech and Libertarians,” Alternet, February 1) as I am in his treatment of his chosen news hook, Uber.
Don’t get me wrong. His attack on libertarianism is as historically illiterate as most other examples of the genre at Alternet. Making dogmatic, blanket generalizations about a movement with as many varied sub-currents as libertarianism (many of them quite left-wing or even socialistic), and discovering the “truth” about their “real nature” in the thought of Ayn Rand, is as stupid as a Bircher denouncing “socialism” based on his heavily underlined copy of “The Communist Manifesto.”
But I want to focus instead on the internal inconsistency of Eskow’s statements on the sharing economy, and his incredibly naive understanding of how regulations work. Eskow’s argument about the sharing economy is:
1) A sharing economy “is lateral in structure” and “a peer-to-peer economy” (correct);
2) Uber is neither. It’s “hierarchical in structure. It monitors and controls its drivers, demanding that they purchase services from it while guiding their movements and determining their level of earnings” (correct again); therefore …
3) The sharing economy is a lie!
Well, no. Genuine sharing — lateral and peer-to-peer — is no lie. We just need to replace the counterfeit, Uber, with the real thing: Open-source ridesharing services instead of proprietary corporate apps, cooperatively controlled by drivers and customers rather than by Uber’s glorified temp agency model. And that would be, incidentally, a genuine free market institution — the kind of thing any genuine libertarian, as opposed to a mere corporate shill, should want.
Even more ridiculous is Eskow’s googoo defense of regulations, straight out of a tenth grade civics book. Uber’s defenders, he says, “don’t seem to understand that regulations exist for a reason.” Even when they’re onerous and bureaucratic, “it’s a flaw in execution rather than principle.” Regulations “serve a social purpose, ensuring the free and fair exchange of services and resources among all segments of society. Some services, such as transportation, are of such importance that the public has a vested interest in ensuring they will be readily available at reasonably affordable prices.”
Actually, no. Regulations usually serve the business interests that control the state. Eskow seems to labor under the illusion that the state is (to borrow a phrase) just “all of us working together.” It is not. It is, as Marx characterized it, “the executive committee of the capitalist ruling class.” The state has always been the mechanism by which economic ruling classes enforce the privileges, artificial property rights, artificial scarcities and monopolies through which they extract rents from the rest of society.
Although sold to the public as measures to restrain corporate malefactors for the general welfare, regulations generally serve the interests of the regulated businesses. The Progressive Era regulatory agenda, as described by New Left historian Gabriel Kolko in The Triumph of Conservatism, was passed at the behest of the regulated industries after their attempts at establishing stable voluntary cartels had failed, in order to restrict price competition between them. The centerpiece of the New Deal, the National Recovery Administration, established industry-run cartels, enabling big business to restrict output and set prices.
But explaining the taxicab medallion system as a measure to guarantee the availability of adequate service at reasonable prices, when its actual purpose is to restrict entry and limit competition so the regulated firms can charge monopoly prices, approaches Orwellian levels of naivete.
Roy Childs described liberal intellectuals as the running dogs of big business. And he was right. Monopoly capital doesn’t need right-wingers consciously propagandizing for it, when it has liberal useful idiots like Eskow to unwittingly do so.