Raleigh’s News & Observer featured a fine editorial this morning that was spurred by the nation’s latest horrific mass firearm murder. As the N&O pointed out, it is essential that companies like Uber — the taxi-like service for whom the alleged murderer worked — do a better job of vetting drivers.
The only shortcoming in the editorial was that it should have gone further and called into question some of the basic premises of Uber, Airbnb other such services that operate with little-to-none of the public oversight that governs their competitors. As many observers have pointed out for some time now, the rapid growth in Internet-based companies that sell products and services outside of the regulatory and tax structures that surround traditional businesses is at once an excellent and troubling phenomenon.
On the “plus” side of course is the whole innovation, creativity thing. It’s great that entrepreneurs out there are figuring out all sorts of new ways to deliver products and services that people want in an efficient way.
That said, it’s not like any of this is completely new. Humans have been selling transportation and lodging since the beginning of civilization. And the reason that modern society regulated and taxed these things was, among other things, to: a) protect consumers from abuses (like dangerous taxi drivers and firetrap hotels), b) to assure that businesses paid their fair share of maintaining the public infrastructure (roads, police, fire protection, EMS, etc…) that makes it possible for them to operate and c) to help assure fair treatment for workers.
Thus, while it’s great that entrepreneurs are thinking outside the box, we would do well to remember that there are all sorts of pitfalls that come with a complete capitalism free-for-all. The key is to find the right balance. We need to construct (and constantly tweak) a regulatory framework that promotes innovation and free enterprise, but that also establishes a fair and safe playing field for all businesses, consumers and workers.
As the shooting disaster in Michigan reminds us, it’s time for some tweaking.