Libertarians’ anti-government crusade: Now there’s an app for that

Under the guise of the "sharing economy," more and more start-ups are pushing hard for free-market fanatacism

Topics: The Sharing Economy, uber, Airbnb, Monkey Parking, Libertarianism, Deregulation, Editor's Picks, , , ,

Libertarians' anti-government crusade: Now there's an app for thatRonald Reagan (Credit: AP/Doug Mills/Salon)

Over the past six years in Oakland, California, a woman named Asiya Wadud has organized a community effort to share the produce of local, privately owned fruit trees. In the East Bay, fruit from that fig or Meyer lemon tree in the backyard often goes to waste at harvest time. In “Forage Oakland,” Wadud created a structure that encourages those who have to easily share their bounty with those who don’t. There’s no profit incentive, and signing on to the project turns out be a great way to meet your neighbors.

This, pretty much everyone would agree, is an inspiring example of the “sharing economy.”

I became acquainted with Wadud’s story last Sunday night via a short documentary shown at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater. But I had hardly finished digesting its heartfelt message of community connection when, on Monday, my Twitter feed filled up with stories about a cease-and-desist letter sent by San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera to a start-up called Monkey Parking.

Monkey Parking is an app that enables auctioning off public parking spots to the highest bidder. Another, very similar parking app also deemed illegal went one step further: actively offering to pay car owners to squat in parking spaces, so as to provide valuable bootstrapping inventory.

This, pretty much everyone would agree, is an example of how the “sharing economy” can be totally bullshit.

It’s rare that one encounters such easily defined ends of a spectrum. The truth is usually a lot more muddy. For example, Monkey Parking’s CEO, Paolo Dobrowolny, attempted to confuse the situation by telling reporters that his company is just trying to do what Lyft and Airbnb and Uber — other companies that “are continuously facing difficulties while delivering something that makes users happy” — are doing: solve a market inefficiency (the lack of parking spots) with the convenience of a smartphone-enabled platform.



But there’s an obvious difference: Monkey Parking’s solution intended to generate profit off of a public good by rewarding those who are able to pay — and shutting out the less affluent. That’s outrageous and not something any civilized society should tolerate. (By way of contrast, you can make a decent case that an operation like Airbnb provides real value to the less affluent, both in savings on hotel rooms, and in earnings from letting out spare rooms.)

And yet at the same time, understanding where Monkey Parking crosses the line helps us better appreciate why we should hold up every “sharing economy” app to close scrutiny. The entitlement and obvious self-interest that led Monkey Parking to decide it could solve a San Francisco municipal problem with a blatantly illegal business model is shared by many “disruptive” entrepreneurs — often cloaked under the cover of libertarian ideology.

More to the point: finding ways to exploit regulatory loopholes is another way to game public goods. If, for example, hotels have to pay taxes and abide by safety regulations that private homeowners do not, Airbnb gains a competitive advantage. Those safety regulations are a kind of public good. But the profit-focused sharing economy tends to see regulations as a hindrance. What we end up with, if we just let the disruptors proceed as they please, is the kind of digital economy Ronald Reagan might have envisioned. Government is an irrelevant obstacle, while the benefits of sharing economy apps trickle down to everyone!

* * *

Monkey Parking might have been slapped with a cease-and-desist order, but it isn’t giving up without a fight. In a statement sent to Ars Technica, CEO Paolo Dobrowolny claimed that the First Amendment rights of Monkey Parking’s users were being infringed. He vowed to fight.

…MonkeyParking claimed that it was, in fact, not auctioning off public parking spaces. Rather, the company says it auctions off information about the parking spaces.

“The real issue here is that a local ordinance is being misapplied to wrongfully target our service,” the company said. “This is happening with our company and other companies operating in the social sharing space. This is yet another example of a local ordinance that was drafted in a world pre-shared economy which local authorities are improperly applying to a shared economy service.”

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the chutzpah at work here. Monkey Parking is an Italian start-up based in Rome. Dobrowolny is claiming the right to operate as he pleases in a foreign municipality and even dares to claim that his business model is constitutionally protected free speech! Talk about your classic  transnational neocolonialist libertarian arrogance! In Dobrowolny’s world, borders are a meaningless social construct and the clear interest a municipal government might have in preventing predatory hoarding and auctioning of a public good — parking spaces — is statist piffle! Italian software developers know better than the “local authorities” what’s right for San Francisco.

Dobrowolny’s position is extreme enough that even the assembled commenters at Hacker News, who normally tend toward a fairly doctrinaire techno-libertarian point of view, were generally agog at the ridiculousness of Monkey Parking. And yet, at the same time, Dobrowolny makes an argument sure to be familiar with anyone who has been following the ongoing showdowns between sharing economy companies and the state. Because we are dealing with information, we are not subject to the same rules as the incumbent dinosaurs we aim to drive extinct.

Under this logic, Uber is not a taxi company — it’s a platform for sharing information about available cars and riders. Airbnb is not a hotel company — it is a platform for sharing information about available rooms. Even Forage Oakland isn’t really about the fruit — it’s about the information that connects the availability of the fruit to the people who are willing to harvest it (and eager to eat it).

It is, of course, enormously convenient that in the digital age, information should not be subject to same rules as “physical” reality. But it is the purest sophistry to declare that information about an available parking spot is significantly different than the parking spot itself, especially when cash is involved. Creating a profit incentive for the “owner” of information about an available parking spot creates an incentive to occupy that spot until it can be sold off. That “owner” is not sharing information. He or she is profiting off his possession of the information. There are clear real-world consequences.

The creators of these platforms can pretend all they want that they are just dealing with information, but people will continue to get injured or killed in car crashes, and disastrous gas leaks will likely occur in Airbnb properties; heck, someone might even get food poisoning from a rotten Temescal plum. Liability will be assessed, regulations will be applied, and there is absolutely no reason why the platforms that aim to make huge profits by providing the necessary information that put people in harm’s way or otherwise exploited them will be held any less responsible than the companies that thrived in a “world pre-shared economy.”

I propose a test: In the future, when evaluating the social righteousness of a sharing-economy app, let’s try to figure out which end of the spectrum it is closer to.

At one end, I give you an excerpt from the Forage Oakland manifesto:

The gleaning of unharvested fruits; the meeting of new neighbors; the joy of the season’s first hachiya persimmon (straight from your neighbor’s backyard, no less); the gathering and redistribution of fruits that would otherwise be wasted- can be powerful and can work to create a new paradigm around how we presently think about food in our collective consciousness. Imagine gathering several friends for morning, midday, evening or weekend foraged city bicycle rides through your neighborhood. Rough maps are drawn, noting the forage-ables that can be found at each location and ‘cold calls’ are made to your neighbors asking if you can sample a fruit from their backyard tree. You have the courage to introduce yourself (despite the pervasiveness and acceptance of urban anomie) and they reward your neighborliness with a sample of Santa Rosa plums, for example. Later, when you find yourself with a surplus of Persian mulberries, you- in turn- deliver a small basket to said neighbor. With time and in this fashion, a community of people who care for and know one another is built, and rather than being the exception, this could be the norm. This is not idealistic, rather it is necessary, pragmatic, and creative– especially in times when much of the world is suffering from lack of access to healthful and satisfying fresh food. Forage Oakland is a project that works to construct a new model– and is one of many neighborhood projects that will eventually create a network of local resources that address the need and desire for neighborhoods to be more self-sustaining in meeting their food needs.

At the other end of the spectrum is a guy sitting in a Tesla outside an artisanal rye whiskey bar in the Mission, fielding bids for his cherry parking spot while around him local residents circle hopelessly looking for an opening. On this end of the spectrum, selfishness is rewarded, community isn’t even in the ballpark, and inequality gets a boost.

Monkey Parking deserves kudos. By heightening the contradictions inherent in the profit-seeking sharing economy, the app does us all a huge favor.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...