It’s fine if you’re a Technolibertarian, just don’t pretend it’s progressive

Last summer, I visited LA for a week without a car, and twice used Lyft, in which random strangers in their own cars come and give you a ride for about 75% of what a taxi costs. It was really easy! I used an app on my phone (into which I also put my credit card info), and then paid at the end of each ride with the app. No money changed hands. I met two new interesting people, both of whom enjoyed driving for Lyft. I saved a small amount of money. It all seemed too good to be true.

That’s because it was. I used Lyft when it was brand-brand new, and before its larger and more popular competitor, Uber, became Ub-iquitous (ha). But shortly after I got home from LA, I started reading articles about these unregulated, underground taxi services (which is actually what they are), and realized that I had made a huge mistake. As St. Louis writer and cab driver Umar Lee puts it in a piece that went deservedly viral a few weeks ago, these fake-taxi startups are actually hipster-libertarian nightmares.

An entire generation of tech-startup-oriented, anti-regulation individuals–“Technolibertarians“, as I’ve heard it put–is obsessed with services like these, from the so-called “sharing economy” (I wasn’t aware that when you provided someone a good or service in exchange for money, it constituted “sharing,” but perhaps I’m just a Statist Moocher).  This includes ride-“sharing” like Uber, and apartment-“sharing” services such as Airbnb. Again, how are you “sharing” your apartment when you are renting it out for money? I do not understand the words coming out of your mouth.

Anyway, what’s got these startup circle-jerks particularly Ayn Randy is that these “sharing” services have cut out the middleman–i.e. the evil government that evilly taxes and regulates what should be left entirely to consumers and the invisible hand of the market. I mean, just look at how great Uber responds to “surge” times by jacking up its prices to far MORE than that of a taxi (they’ve since walked back on that, to be fair)! Just look at how safe it is to rent your apartment out using Airbnb (yes, that’s an outlier, but still: EEP). But besides even the obvious reasons why you want something such as taking rides from strangers and staying in strangers’ homes subject to a regulatory body, there is also the larger ethical, economic reason–and this brings me to my larger point.

As Lee points out, services like Uber “help” rich hipsters by saving them a few bucks that are “better” spent on expensive headphones and dumb-looking pants, but they hurt the poor. They hurt the poor a lot. Services like Airbnb, however, hurt the poor even more. Think about it. Who benefits from this “sharing” in big tourist destinations like New York? Someone in the South Bronx? No. Someone who can already afford to live in Manhattan or a “desirable” part of Brooklyn or Queens.

It’s BBFB: By Bougies For Bougies.

The “middleman” in the hotel world is the government, sure, but it’s also the thousands upon thousands of lower-wage workers who depend upon hotels for survival, from reservation agents to housekeepers. Those “annoying” hotel taxes that you pay go to provide resources for everyone in the city–resources you use while you’re visiting, and resources that are available to everyone, including the poor. The “sharing” economy means “sharing” wealth and resources, but only between “deserving” people. Everyone else gets cut out, and becomes even more forgotten and invisible than before.

All of this seems to me painfully obvious–and also nothing to be ashamed about, if you self-identify as a Libertarian (or libertarian-leaning). So why, then, are so many of my so-called “progressive” friends–who would rather impale themselves before voting for Rand Paul, or Ron Paul, or really any of the Pauls besides RuPaul–circulating petitions on Facebook to “save” Airbnb and “legalize” “sharing” (uh, actual sharing is legal, assholes; under-the-table commerce isn’t)?

Don’t get me wrong; I have no problem with people using these services as long as they exist. They’re cheaper. You can’t expect everyone to walk the moral high-walk all damn day long, or even want to. I try very hard to make my own clothes most of the time, but right this second, I’m wearing some leopard-print MC Hammer pants from H&M, that were 100% certainly constructed by glorified slave labor. I have, like I said before, used Lyft. I have stayed in a VRBO apartment, and will probably do so again, until the government finally cracks down on unregulated apartment “sharing.” But when they do? I will applaud. I will understand that it is a decidedly Technolibertarian, anti-poor method of living my life, and the world will be better off if I can’t do it anymore, no matter what’s more convenient for a bougie like me.

So that’s all I want from my friends. If you use Airbnb, or if you rent out your place using Airbnb, you don’t get to call yourself a progressive anymore. You just don’t. You are a Silicon Valley Techolibertarian who believes in market forces and bootstraps. And that’s OK. You need to look in the mirror and say: “The convenience of renting an apartment instead of a hotel, even though every time I do it it harms poor people, is more important to me than living my liberal principles. I guess I’m not really that liberal!”

AND THAT IS OK. Nobody has to be liberal. I’m not a huge fan of libertarians myself, but I catch myself doing libertarian shit all the time. I’m not going to judge you if you are yourself doing something libertarian, as long as you admit it!

What I am going to judge, however, is you self-identifying as a bleeding-heart pinko when your real values don’t align.

53 thoughts on “It’s fine if you’re a Technolibertarian, just don’t pretend it’s progressive

  1. Amen. I had a long conversation about both Lyft and Airbnb from someone who saw this as “sharing.” Both hurt hotel workers and taxi drivers. If you want to share your ride or your apartment, do it for free. That’s what sharing is.


  2. I am now both#failedacademic and #failedprogressive. I caved in to Uber but I can I keep some of my self image 🙂 by claiming I don’t buy my books/e-books off Amazon but indie shops/kobo–must count for something, right? (now I’m re: Saval).

    Leopard print MC Hammer pants–worthy of twitter photo


  3. I’m all in favor of self-awareness with regard to how we interact with the larger system and culture, but I’m not sure it’s as stark as all that. I mean, if someone has cheese with dinner every night, he’s surely not vegan, but he’s not exactly a carnivore either. I surely benefit personally and financially from various activities of the United States military, but I would rather hesitate to call my self a NeoConservative in support of wars of aggression.

    For my own part, I’m not really in favor of political labeling (I started to write ‘not in favor of labels’ but that’s a little too hipster for me, man…) I find that on certain topics I’m progressive, others moderate, and others rather conservative. Pretty much in a political discussion with the left and the right I piss them both off, and if there is a Libertarian among us, he (of course he) will probably throw something at me despite his avowed pacifism and isolationism. I suppose I see a lot of people adopting the views of their chosen label rather than picking their label based on their views. If you can’t be a Progressive who supports the EPA and AirBnB, then what does that make you? There’s not a label for that, so is it disallowed? What if I support a balanced budget and fiscal restraint in general but also government-sponsored heath-care? Do I have to move to Germany?

    For my part, I would like to see some regulation of these “sharing” services (that term is Orwellian enough to make one gag…) that is somewhat less onerous than those imposed upon Howard Johnson for the people who want to rent a room (or car or whatever) a few weeks out of the year but not as a full-time business. Something that maintains minimum standards and safety (and taxes) for everyone without crushing a potentially beneficial source of income and opportunity. I certainly couldn’t afford to stay in NYC for 3 weeks in a conventional hotel – at least one that isn’t a complete roach-infested hellhole.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice points, but I would simple quibble that it’s not fine if you’re a technolibertarian. It’s just not.


  5. I think Uber users regualr yellow taxis, just gets them to where you are and imposes a surcharge. Presumably therefore not hurting taxi drivers. But I totally agree with you in general. I’m even okay up to a point with AirBNB since hotels can be expensive and the hosts can maybe use the money, but I’d be much happier if it were taxed. And actually probably some regulation, the cost to be borne by the hosts and guest somehow..


  6. I think the next question you need to ask here is WHY anyone is so hot to affix the label of “progressive” to themselves if their views don’t align with progressivism.


    • It’s unregulated and untaxed. Vacation homes & condos are registered as hotels and have to pay taxes & employ professional staff (cleaners, reservation agents, etc)


      • I think you get two weeks of untaxed rent of your own home without triggering any consequences: “You may take the mortgage interest deduction and rent your house out tax-free for up to 14 days a year. Not too many other money-making ventures allow you to make money tax-free. You cannot, however, go even one day over the 14-day rule or you not only have to claim all the rent as income, but you also lose your right to claim the mortgage interest deduction and you cannot claim business expenses or depreciation.”

        Dön’t döübt the pöwer of the ümlaüt . . .


  7. Reblogged this on Clarissa's Blog and commented:
    Just one more thing, and I will leave you, folks, in peace for today. Here is a great post on why the so-called “sharing economy” fad is a bunch of crap. I wanted to write something like this but wouldn’t be able to articulate it half as well as this blogger did. Enjoy!


  8. I am surprised you do not see the ‘synergies’ with the way academia works…. full of self-professed Marxists maximising their own market value (try asking them their salary, it’s like asking them to murder their own mother with a rusty butter knife), totally ignoring the army of slaves (sorry, adjuncts) doing their own dirty work (sorry, teaching), whoring themselves for corporations (sorry, getting research money), growing a nice little pension fund invested in the most unethical possible businesses and on and on.


  9. I agree, but the situation is complicated… I’ve used Uber in Chicago because the regular / low-end service (not the black car service which is the one that jacked up the prices) is $5-$10 cheaper than a taxi for a ride from downtown to my neighborhood and I am a graduate student who earns a piddly stipend. So, it’s like Wal-Mart–a horrible company that in many places offers the cheapest groceries, and when you make 10K-16K a year, you’re going to ignore the rich (usually white) men getting richer by saving you a couple of bucks here and there. 😦


    • I think it is very much like Wal-mart, despite being the opposite of a gigantic, really well centralized corporation in some ways…a lot of people might prefer to shop elsewhere but can’t afford to do much else. I haven’t even though about using Lyft or Uber because I don’t have a smartphone, but I have used Airbnb two or three times to attend conferences or make quick research trips when I didn’t know anyone to share an expensive hotel room. I do try to avoid those trips and minimize travel costs generally, but I’m not willing to opt out of all work-related travel entirely if I can’t afford two nights at a hotel. (Also, I’ve used Couchsurfing, which is a real “sharing” site where no money is exchanged; maybe I’m just awkward, but in some ways, staying at a stranger’s house is *less* weird if it’s an economic exchange.)

      On the other hand, I know someone trying to make a living as a driver for one of those services – I would say it’s not always by-bougies-for-bougies, and that it’s actually worse when it’s not. “Sharing” and “crowd-sourcing” services supposedly liberate people to be their own bosses, structure their working lives, earn “extra” money, etc. but for a lot of people provide “work” at a below-minimum-wage level. Have you seen this article?


  10. This is why I always think that the “third world” is a libertarian’s paradise. Go to some places and you’ll find lots of set-ups like Lyft, except there’s no fancy app, just people who slap a TAXI sticker on their cars and drive you around. There’s no public transportation either, only rusted old minivans stuffed full with passengers driven by some guy who may or may not have a driver’s license. Need emergency life-saving medical care? Be prepared to only receive as much care as you can afford and, if you can’t afford the rest of your surgery, procedure, or whatever, be prepared to only be kept alive as long as your family/friends can raise enough cash to pay for the rest. If you move to the city and live on the outskirts looking for a supposedly better life for your kids, get used to having your kids play around open sewers and walking long distances to get your drinking water from a communal source. But of course, the state security apparatus is always there to suppress you if you get uppity. It’s libertarianism at its best!


  11. Ummm…. excuse me again, but…

    “All of this seems to me painfully obvious–and also nothing to be ashamed about, if you self-identify as a Libertarian (or libertarian-leaning). So why, then, are so many of my so-called “progressive” friends–who would rather impale themselves before voting for Rand Paul, or Ron Paul, or really any of the Pauls besides RuPaul–circulating petitions on Facebook to “save” Airbnb and “legalize” “sharing” (uh, actual sharing is legal, assholes; under-the-table commerce isn’t)?”

    I am not a Libertarian, and wouldn’t vote for either Paul (or for RuPaul), but I do have a theory: because… (a) it isn’t at all obvious, and (b) most progressives are actually intolerant hypocrites?


  12. Historically, taking on boarders was common in American households.. according to social historians such as Hareven and Cherlin it’s only in the last century that the household has become more individualized. I suppose it’s important to differentiate renting out an entire apartment through unregulated channels, and offering a room in your house. 1099s are issued to renters.. so the gov’t does receive some money.


  13. Quibble on the economics: I’ll totally grant that AirBnb is bad for everyone but wealthy tech-hipsters because it takes apartments off the market in areas that already have huge housing crunches. However, although I wouldn’t use Lyft/Uber if *they* paid *me* (physically small, female, and *not* willing to get into the car of an unregulated total stranger just because some 20-something tech startup wunderkind says I’m perfectly safe. Same is true for AirBnB and apartments, for the record), it’s not as obvious to me that those services cause economic harm to poor, disenfranchised, or even taxi-driver populations (protests notwithstanding). AirBnB removes apartments from the housing market, driving up prices; Uber, on the other hand, strictly adds cars, driving up prices for the people who use the service, but freeing up cabs for everyone else with no impact on the prices they pay. This could in theory hurt cab drivers, except that in many markets (especially those in which Uber is popular) there are waaaaaaay fewer cabs than the market could support (often directly created by crazy protectionist regulations, *cough* NYC *cough*). In those cities, Uber effectively just lets wealthy people to trade $$ for time, and removes them from the market for cabs, leaving more for everyone else. Those cab drivers are still *totally* booked, because there are so few of them. Given that prices are set by the mile/regulation and not by the market, the only difference is that it will take slightly less time for passengers to get one, because there are fewer people waiting. In the rain at rush hour when getting a cab in midtown Manhattan involves a 90 minute wait, any mechanism for reducing the number of people in line basically a win.*

    It’s totally possible that this doesn’t hold in St. Louis, because it’s possible that St. Louis has a surfeit of cabs. My instinct, though, is that Uber/Lyft’s business model doesn’t work in cities with too many cabs, since their whole schtick relies on the surge pricing. Surge pricing can only happen if there aren’t enough cabs to satisfy demand. If there are too many cabs to the point that a new taxi service adding cars to the market takes away jobs, Uber/Lyft can’t surge, because there are too many drivers, and they hemorrhage money. While the cabbie’s response that you linked is compelling in its argument for progressive causes, working-class solidarity, and the value of supporting blue-collar jobs, it doesn’t make an especially concrete economic argument that cabbies are actually hurt economically by the addition of new cab drivers beyond an appeal to our intuition about supply.

    I’m happy to be corrected, especially because I admit didn’t read all the linked articles, and because also techno-libertarians are still the worst and affordable housing is a huge problem. It’s just not obvious to me that the car services in particular are actually hurting poor people.

    *Also a win if you live in a place like Pittsburgh, where there are no cabs trolling the streets and where calling one and arranging for it to come get you bears no relationship to whether a cab will actually arrive and then take you to your destination any time between when you called and the apocalypse.


      • I read it. Skipping over the Belgians in Congo, the 100,000 Israeli troops in the West Bank (really? 100,000? Out of 170,000 active personnel? Which includes the Air Force and the Navy? Color me skeptical… But this discussion isn’t about the West Bank.), the anti-gentrification blah-blahs, and all the rest, the only extremely important point I could see there was that most taxi passengers are poor and elderly (according to him), and – if I understand his economic argument – that the hipsters without the Uber/Lyft apps on their iPhones in effect subsidize the poor/elderly passengers – while the hipsters with the Uber/Lyft apps are not available to do so.

        Did I miss any other extremely important points? Because this one is not exactly a manifesto for anti-Uber action…


      • I did read it, and I agree that his points about the meaning of progressive and the importance of working class solidarity etc etc are very important. For the most part, they stand on their own, leaving aside the economics: uber, lyft, etc do contribute to the societal/cultural divide between technolibertarians/other rich assholes and the working poor, and a progressive, liberal society should aim for better.

        That said, the reason I posted is that if the argument is not made carefully, it ends up relying on (what I view as) relatively unstable economic grounds. For example, you say:

        “The “middleman” in the hotel world is the government, sure, but it’s also the thousands upon thousands of lower-wage workers who depend upon hotels for survival, from reservation agents to housekeepers. Those “annoying” hotel taxes that you pay go to provide resources for everyone in the city–resources you use while you’re visiting, and resources that are available to everyone, including the poor. The “sharing” economy means “sharing” wealth and resources, but only between “deserving” people. Everyone else gets cut out, and becomes even more forgotten and invisible than before.”

        At least the last sentence strongly implies that “gets cut out” means “loses business/wealth/resources.” AirBnb: totally true. Prices rise, everyone who can’t afford them gets shut out of the market. Uber/Lyft? …I’m not so convinced, for the reasons I laid out in my original comment. And I haven’t seen much concrete economic evidence that I’m wrong. Lee’s post does suggest that the margins as a cab driver in St. Louis are really thin, and so again, it’s possible that the market there is sufficiently different from the market in Manhattan (where there are so few taxi medallions available that when they are sold they go for *literally* millions of dollars to the cab companies that then lease the rights to the drivers. Overregulation, ahoy!) that more drivers would hurt the current cabbie population.

        Overall, I agree with both you and him so it feels silly for me to spend so many words on a pretty fine distinction, especially when it’s possible to make this larger argument without the economics mattering all that much. I guess that’s why I’m saying so much about it, really: the economics aren’t very sound, so it seems like the argument is better made (about cab services, again) without relying on it. I don’t personally use these services for a bunch of reasons and you’re spot on that it’s incompatible to call oneself progressive and use/champion them, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth thinking critically about all facets of the issue (including the economics). That was a lot of double negatives, sorry…


  14. So how exactly do you plan to argue for something that you recognize is economically unsound? After thinking critically, and all that?


    • George: Is your question directed at me or Rebecca? Ambiguous WordPress comment layout is ambiguous.


      • To you. 🙂 You might start with an economic theory of why hipsters and college students subsidizing taxi rides by poor people (per our new friend Umar “100,000 troops in the West Bank” Lee) is a good thing. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t – but at least there, one could think of *some* arguments. And there is at least some precedent for such a thing – when I fly business class for $6K to Moscow on BA, I am subsidizing everyone in the back of the plane.

        But yes, broadly speaking, it is always interesting to hear economically-unsound-but-it’s-good-for-you arguments, that take all facets critically into account. And all that. 🙂


  15. BTW, what the heck is a “hipster”? It suddenly occurred to me that I might be a hipster, and not even know it!


      • Well, our new friend Umar “Belgians in Congo” Lee seems to believe there is. Which makes me wonder. If I am not a hipster, I probably would want to be one. So how do I become a hipster? Or being a hipster is like Zen – it can only be experienced, it cannot be described?


  16. Quibble: Uber isn’t just cheaper, it is also MUCH more reliable. In the city where I live, cab services often lie about whether, or when, they will be able to get a cab to you. This has happened to me — I called 45 minutes ahead, I was promised a cab that never showed up, with the result that I missed a talk I was trying to attend. This is annoying when you’re trying to go somewhere, but it could be downright dangerous if you’re trying to get a cab home after the bars close. With Uber and Lyft you can see on your phone whether your ride is actually on its way. I’d rather be accused of being a “techno-hipster” than be stranded on a dark street at 3 a.m.

    I’d also happily pay more for a properly regulated, non-exploitative service (also, good government-subsidized public transport would remove much of the need for cabs), but this is a choice customers often don’t have in today’s capitalist hell marketplace.


    • So let me see if I understand this:

      Unlike those other *regulated* taxi services (the kind promoted by Umar “eradicate the local population!” Lee), Uber is cheaper, MUCH more reliable, doesn’t lie about whether the promised cab will get to you, and shows you on your iPhone where your cab is at any given moment.

      And yet…

      Uber needs to be “properly regulated”. What, specifically, in Uber’s service needs regulating?


  17. Hmmm. Can’t deny I’m curious about what BS backlash you dealt with but, yeah, no worries, I know its none of my business. I, too, loved Saval’s piece and would not have known about it had it not been for your post. Thank you for that.


  18. Isn’t comparing hotels to Airbnb a bit like comparing apples and oranges? Staying in an apartment is not analogous to getting a room in a hotel. The most obvious difference is the kitchen – you don’t have to eat out 3 times a day, which means – big savings for the low and middle income travelers. (The 0.1%, I am sure, don’t care about the cost of eating out when they travel.)

    I don’t know what it saves in SF or NY, but when I stay in an apartment in Moscow (not Airbnb, a different local service), it costs me about $300/day, including food. Staying in a Holiday Inn-type hotel would run about $600 a day.

    What’s the argument against Airbnb, again?


  19. Why is it such a bad thing to think or do libertarian things? You do realize that the whole “progressive” tag is a tired 19th century agenda that coopted a future oriented term but sells obsolete and many times disproven economics combined with a dialectical polarity ridden form of class conflict by gender and skin color instead of economic status, that resents and disparages talent, skill, and merit in favor of entitlement based on the illusion that one’s many generations removed ancestors may have been shat upon by some of your other ancestors?


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