This is the sequel to a post about the two spheres we all dwell in – the political and the civil – and how each affect our behavior.
Originally published in The Freeman.
Why do so many San Franciscans want to curb Airbnb’s innovative business model?
Proposition F would have restricted the number of nights owners could list their homes and which types of rooms could be listed; it would also have required a litany of paperwork and reporting to a city department. Listings that did not meet city standards would have incurred fines of up to $1,000 per day. The details are many, but the thrust is obvious: this proposal was to make Airbnb far less successful at creating value for customers and investors.
The proposal ultimately failed, but it wasn’t a landslide. Forty-four percent of voters supported it. Nearly half of the voters in a city that owes its recent prosperity and identity to this kind of innovative company wanted to strangle one of the geese on whose eggs they are feasting.
Most political action is signaling.
The simplest explanation is that proponents of this proposal were the minority of businesses and individuals who are in direct competition with Airbnb — hotels and those working or investing with them. True, but something deeper is at work. A surprising number of investors, entrepreneurs, and everyday residents of the city who are not involved with competing businesses voiced their support for the proposal. Some supporters were even Airbnb investors.
How could this be?
Here are five reasons (by no means an exhaustive list) why people behave so badly in the political realm.
1. Other People’s Problems
Milton Friedman famously described the four ways to spend money. You can spend your own money on yourself, your own money on someone else, someone else’s money on yourself, or someone else’s money on someone else. It’s clear that you’ll be most judicious in the first scenario, and less so in each that follows.
All political issues are a case of the fourth scenario, even when money is not directly involved. You’re voting on the use of resources that aren’t yours — the pool of taxpayer dollars that fund government bureaucracy — to solve someone else’s problem, in this case hoteliers threatened by competition and San Francisco residents supposedly being pushed out of affordable housing.
Ballot initiatives tell us that some people, somewhere, are having some kind of problem — and that we can vote to make it better. It’ll cost you nothing (at least nothing you can see at the moment), so why not?
Not only voters, but also the regulators, enforcers, and drafters of such propositions are so far removed from the issue at hand and have no personal stake in the outcome that it is impossible for them to make decisions or draft policies without unintended consequences.
2. Information Issues
Proposition F is ridiculously complex. To cast a fully informed vote on the Prop F, one would need to begin by reading all 21 pages of legal text. What’s more, the costs of obtaining the information far exceed the probability that your informed vote will be decisive. The result is what economists call “rational ignorance.”
Customers, employees, managers, and investors of Airbnb are best suited to optimize the service. Even the company’s competitors are in an excellent position to curb it or force it to improve if they channel their efforts where the information matters, namely in the markets where they stand to lose or gain.
3. Signaling for Survival
Most political action is signaling. It’s not so much that people want to buy American or recycle everything — we know this because when their own money is on the line in the real world of trade-offs, they mostly don’t. But people want to be seen as the kind of person who buys American or supports recycling. There is tremendous pressure in the political sphere to prove to everyone that you support all the right things — especially things that come at a direct personal cost to you. This proves you care about that abstraction called “society.”
Once control by force is an option, a great deal of otherwise productive energy and otherwise creative people are drawn into the crooked craft of politics.
The best thing a rich person can do in the political sphere is vote for higher taxes on the rich. The best thing an Airbnb investor can do is claim to support regulations that restrict Airbnb. You’ll get lots of cheap signal points, even if what you support would actually be bad for everyone.
4. Binary Choices
Voting is a yes or no affair. The political sphere is incapable of genuine pluralism. Imagine if markets worked the same way. What if your local grocery store sent out a survey asking you to vote on which kind of wine you wanted them to stock, or how much, or at what price (with any losses to be made up by adjusting other prices)?
Can Airbnb be improved? Of course. Can a bunch of people with no control over the outcome and little skin in the game be given an up or down vote on a single policy proposal and make it better? Don’t be silly.
The adaptability, nuance, and diversity of options, offerings, and solutions in a market are the greatest strength and the very stuff on which the startup scene was built. Cramming broad society-wide solutions into binary choices is absurd.
5. The Problem of Power
The infamous Stanford prison experiment didn’t go horribly wrong because the wrong batch of subjects was chosen: it was a case of dangerous institutions and incentives. When rules are enforced by raw power, the person who wields that power has more control than any human being can responsibly handle.
Contrary to Thomas Hobbes, it is not the “state of nature” that is a war of all against all; it is Leviathan that rewards force over cooperation and cultivates the worst traits. Once control by force is an option, a great deal of otherwise productive energy and otherwise creative people are drawn into the crooked craft of politics.
F.A. Hayek wrote at length in The Road to Serfdom about why, in the political sphere, the worst get on top. It’s a predictable outcome of a powerful state.
Democracy doesn’t keep this tendency in check so much as it directs the power toward those who are best able to appeal to the desire of rationally ignorant voters to signal the trendy positions on the latest issues.
Focus on Freedom
The innovative startup founders on the San Francisco scene are an amazing force for good when they are pursuing their own interests within the incentive structure of civil society. Not one of them would remain a positive influence if they were granted monopoly power through the ballot box. Nor would their customers: even the most forward-thinking minds in the most innovative city in the world become petty and stagnant when operating within the confines of the political sphere.
When you act as a consumer and choose which kind of vacation housing to purchase, your action sends information and incentives rippling through the market price system, helping entrepreneurs guide resources to their highest valued use. When you act as a voter to support or reject a policy, you create losers and enemies, and your vote generates a host of destructive effects.
If you want a freer, better world, you’ve got to build it in the private sphere.