Some quick thoughts about political entrepreneurship

The Wall Street Journal has a weekend interview feature with an entrepreneur who founded Airbnb, a company that has been getting rich by exploiting the so-called “sharing economy.” Overall it’s an interesting read (I think the term “sharing economy” is misleading, but it is a stroke of marketing genius; “I’m not making money: I’m helping people share stuff!”).

However, after reading Rick’s recent thoughts on entrepreneurship and re-reading my own musings on how democracy works, this passage stood out to me like a sore thumb:

By year’s end, Airbnb says it will have booked more overnight stays than the Hilton and InterContinental hotel chains.

As might be expected, hoteliers and hospitality-industry regulators are suspicious of the Airbnb model. In October, New York state sued the company for violating a law passed in 2010—just when Airbnb was picking up steam—barring private citizens from renting an entire apartment for less than 30 days.

Why on earth would New York state undertake such a ridiculous ban? Ostensibly for safety reasons, right? Or maybe to better ensure that labor regulations remain up to par?

The law that hotel chains used to sue its competition strikes me as the perfect example of how cronyism works. The hotel chains are losing some of their market share to innovative competitors, but instead of improving upon their own models they turn to the political process, which (at least in the US) provides guaranteed access to any faction who would like to use it.

Just like in the marketplace, though, guaranteed access does not mean guaranteed results. Enter the entrepreneurial spirit. Except instead of finding ways to make money, the political entrepreneur is finding ways to prevent competition. This second type of entrepreneurship is also driven by self-interest. Libertarians, I think, recognize the dual nature of self-interest (in markets: good; in government: bad), but I cannot think of any literature off the top of my head that deals with this topic.

What I can note is that many people get the nature of self-interest completely wrong. In the minds of many, if not most, people, self-interest is something that only occurs in the marketplace. From this mindset springs many of the fallacies about government regulations and taxes that we often read about in the press. Whether this mindset is a product of genuine or willful ignorance is a topic that I think deserves further scrutiny.

Why is it, for example, that many people do not see that self-interest drives the political process itself? I know that the discipline of ‘political economy’ deals with self-interest in the political process, but even here I see a tendency to treat political entrepreneurs as more noble than the entrepreneur of the marketplace (with a few exceptions, of course). Support for higher taxes on corporations, or support for more stringent government regulations, is often very prominent among the general public and among elites. The general public thinks it is supporting itself against “big corporations” when it supports these policies, as do elites, but in reality these regulations and taxes are driven by an entrepreneurial process that desires to favor one faction over all others.

Am I missing anything? I know I’m missing a bunch of stuff.