Freelancing

The Economist just ran an article on the sharing economy model. This is where an individual can micro-contract to perform a set task on demand through a service that connects customers to workers. The flagship company popular in the news is Uber but the model covers a wide range of services including traditional freelancing and time banks. The focus of the article is on the changes that governments will have to make to regulate and support these new companies with their characteristic despair that any such changes will be made. It’s not for them to make value judgments on the model itself except to note that it will succeed or fall on its ability to make us of idle resources.

Rob Horning has an interesting response in which he critiques the sharing economy for extending the corrosive reach of capitalism into previously protected areas of life and noting that the destruction of the traditional company structure also removes many of the basic guarantees that people expect out of their work. Freelancing has always been fraught with uncertainty (unless you’re an outlier – see the critiques of online education) and it’s not clear that there’s any difference with sharing companies. They will help you find customers and maintain some notice of your availability but perhaps nothing beyond that minimal set.

The basic promises of flexible hours and having accountability connected directly to your customers rather than to a corporate hierarchy are both attractive but what about the loss of other structure? I think we’d see the disappearance of trade unions under the sharing model as the barrier to entry would drop. You might see the emergence of new trade guilds as there becomes value in sharing expertise amongst the workers in a professional model. For the other services companies supply for their employees (conflict resolution, legal aid, sometimes medical aid), these coordination burdens might fully devolve to the state or perhaps return to the model where community organizations such as fraternal orders and churches filled that role. A world where these services become the responsibility of the individual is a worst case scenario but I would be happy to see a world with more options along the lines of local community organizations offering mutual aid.

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