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Special Issue on The Risks and Opportunities of the Sharing Economy ∙ The Shape of Things to Come

The On-Demand Economy and the Normative Stakes of Regulating 21st-Century Capitalism

K. Sabeel Rahman

The “sharing economy” represents a growing challenge to regulatory policy. In this article, I argue that these debates about the sharing economy are better understood as a broader normative and policy problem of updating our regulatory tools for the new dynamics of 21st century capitalism. The new “on-demand” economy reflects more widespread trends in the structure of business organization, driven by new developments in finance and technology. I argue that we should analyze these changes through the normative lens of the balance of economic power: what is especially troubling about the on-demand economy is the way in which it outstrips the modes of accountability and countervailing power enabled by 20th century labor, safety net, and economic regulations. The article then suggests key frontiers for regulatory innovation, in particular: (1) expanding regulatory oversight of concentrated market and economic power among on-demand platforms; (2) expanding the relative power of workers to counteract the concentrated power of platforms in the on-demand economy (for example by expanding safety net protections and the ability to organize collectively); and (3) by reinventing systems of collective urban planning processes in the face of the on-demand economy. All three of these focus areas for regulation would entail a variety of specific interventions, but share a common premise of rebalancing economic power in this new economy. The payoffs of these shifts would be more than an expansion of welfare or efficiency, but rather the creation of a policy regime that enables a richer form of economic freedom that achieves more genuine economic independence from domination of various kinds.

Assistant Professor of Law, Brooklyn Law School; Fellow, New America, and Roosevelt Institute. Thanks to Sofia Ranchordás for inviting me to contribute to this special issue of the EJRR. This essay articulates some findings from an ongoing book project exploring the implications of economic inequality and the changing nature of work in the “new Gilded Age” in the United States. I am grateful to Richard White, Margaret O’Mara, Brishen Rogers, Michelle Miller, Nikki Bas, Felicia Wong, Nellie Abernathy, and the anonymous reviewers of the EJRR for helpful comments and suggestions. Parts of this essay were previously presented at Stanford University’s History of Capitalism Workshop (Fall 2015), and draws on previously published works: “Economics of Power,” New America Weekly Wonk, April 14, 2016, and “Disrupting Democracy: Accountability and Equality in an On-Demand Economy,” Roosevelt Institute working paper (October 2016).


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