Airbnb, Destructive Innovation, and Liberty

By William Newell

Portland is brainstorming regulations for temporary lodging made possible by websites like Airbnb. Airbnb describes itself as a “community marketplace for people to list, discover, and book unique accommodations around the world.” The proposed rules would make homeowners pay a tax, get a permit, and follow certain limitations. Portland’s slow and conditioned acceptance of home lodging businesses serves as a microcosm of one of America’s most troubling problems: our fatal conceit.

Individual liberty is a founding principle of American government and one of our most sacred rights. We protect our individual liberty in part because the dynamism that liberty affords individuals is necessary for a flourishing society. The only time individual liberty is to be attenuated is when one individual interferes with the rights of another.

Portland’s rules simply encourage a political system that erodes liberty and takes with it America’s diversity, dynamism, and drive. If a widow living on a fixed income wants to rent a room to help make ends meet, why should she be stopped because her home wasn’t “zoned” for lodging? If a young couple rents an extra room to pay off college loans, should they have to pay tourism taxes? Those who advocate for bans or restrictions not aimed at mitigating externalities and protecting individual rights are really questioning the underlying dignity and respect we should each be afforded.

*In his essay on the failures of central planning, The Fatal Conceit, Friedrich Hayek argued that individuals are best suited to know their own circumstances and to act to improve them. Actions based upon the presumption of superior knowledge by governments to impede individual endeavors tend to fail and to create more harm than otherwise would have occurred.

William Newell is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. He is a graduate of Willamette University.

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