Published In

(2016) 91:4 Wash L Rev 1397-1459

Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2016

Subjects

sharing economy, access economy, Uber, Airbnb, gig economy, pluralism, pluralistic theory, P2P economy, regulation, innovation

Abstract

The so-called sharing economy presents one of the most important and controversial regulatory dilemmas of our time — yet, surprisingly, it remains undertheorized. This Article supplies needed analysis. Specifically, the Article offers a regulatory model that distinguishes between two separate kinds of transactions: conventional economic transactions and those that rely on temporary access to goods and services that would otherwise go underutilized (what I call “access-to-excess” transactions). The regulatory regime that this Article proposes would distinguish between true access-to-excess transactions and conventional transactions. The model is rooted in a version of pluralist theory that posits that the state is responsible for cultivating a range of social institutions that offer meaningful economic and social alternatives to individuals.

Recognizing access-to-excess transactions in a separate legal regime does not mean countenancing all access-to-excess activity in an under-regulated Wild West of markets. Pluralism has something to offer here as well: I argue that, properly understood, pluralistic principles do not endorse free-market and hands-off policies. Rather, they require state intervention to preserve existing choices, embed and balance diverse values (not only autonomy), ensure fair competition, and protect consumers and employees from strategic and opportunistic behaviors. Thus, pluralistic principles offer the normative foundation for inventive regulation — neither conventional nor free market — that can restrain some of the “sharing” economy’s harms without impeding innovation.

Finally, the Article reverses the lens: The “sharing” economy serves as a real-life laboratory to reveal the operation of pluralistic theory and, thus, sheds light on the theory’s limitations. In particular, the “sharing” economy shows how the plasticity of pluralistic theory may enable harmful free-market policies to masquerade as “choice.”

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