Of Ranchers and Dot-Commers

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy

This guy’s face is all over cable news right now, as is his embarrassingly incoherent story.  For irrelevant reasons, Cliven Bundy has decided that he shouldn’t have to pay federal grazing fees for his cattle.  He’s decided to supplement this essentially selfish and Quixotic cause with an odd theory of sheriff/county rights that suspend any obligations under the federal government, which he believes “doesn’t exist.”  Then there’s the racism – it turns out – shockingly – he holds a bunch of historically confused and racist positions about “the negro.”  All of this makes him fodder for MSNBC and the like.

Here’s a face less widely known (or ridiculed):

airbnb.com CEO Brian Chesky

Airbnb has proven “controversial” (that most inane of media monikers) for reasons quite similar to Bundy’s I-won’t-pay-my-grazing-fees crusade: it turns out some airbnb renters aren’t abiding by laws that, at least on one view, ought to apply to them.  Taken by the rhetoric of “sharing,” users and airbnb.com and similar “new economy” sites often seem taken by the argument that since they’re just “sharing” someone’s living room, car, or whatever for a fee, they shouldn’t have to pay cumbersome “old economy” taxes like “traditional hotels” or “old school yellow taxis.”

There is a striking difference in the way these two stories are covered: the former gets the usual right-wing-wacko treatment.  That they have guns and explicitly espouse a racist ideology helps that happen I suppose.  The latter, of course, is covered as some sort of technical-jargon filled new economy story.  “Will regulations catch up with technology?”  “Does airbnb fill a needed niche in the microeconomics of urban neighborhoods?” and so on.

Certainly the optics for Bundy are a bit worse than for Chesky: Bundy’s followers have camouflage they bought on the internet and scary looking guns; Chesky’s have trendy laptops, smartphones and apartments with exposed brick.

Both are, at root, two manifestations of the naive libertarian take on our collective life together, though.  Both see taxes as a sort of imposition upon otherwise legitimate private actions.  Both see the regulatory network upon which they act as free-riders as unnecessary and even oppressive.

They each cling to their own myths about their pre-institutional property rights: the ranchers have this bizarre theory about sheriff and citizen sovereignty; the airbnb-ers (and we could throw in some other sites here, especially ride sharing ones – and also recall a similar fight about sales taxes at sites like amazon.com a couple of years back) instead derive their property rights from faux-naive talk like “I mean, if I give you $50 dollars, and then you just give me your couch, why would I need to pay taxes?” – and they supplement that talk with a few buzzwords they know you’ll recognize from Econ 101.  Both refuse to see what they’re doing as essentially free-riding selfishness.  They refuse to see society’s legitimate and democratically established interest in taxing and regulating private exchanges.

I think actually the dot-com tax evasion movement is far more dangerous for the legitimacy of liberal-democratic governments and for the cause of a more just society, precisely because the optics are so much better.  Everyone can shove aside a confused racist conspiracy monger every few months (and sadly, we have to) but the “new economy” sunglasses, turtlenecks, haircuts and TEDTalks do much more damage by urging us to set aside our collectively negotiated social contracts and move towards a world of radical individualism, where we all take care of whatever we want, by ourselves, in our living rooms–never mind the community we all live in and benefit from.

Sure, the dot-com world is purged of anyone dumb enough to make overtly racist statements – but their inaction and silence in the face of the impacts of structural racism and inequality are far worse in their effects.  And while Bundy might have a few million dollars he’s not spending to help the poor among us, the dot-com world is sitting on literally billions and billions of dollars they’re using to build homes with spa bathrooms, go para-sailing or whatever it is they find to spend the money on, instead of helping to build meaningfully civic institutions for the places they live and work.  The wifi-enabled dot-com buses are emblematic here: instead of doing what even robber barons did – build long-lasting institutions and transportation infrastructure, they build a bus, insulated from the community through which it travels, that allows non-stop selfish convenience for their transplant workers.

The dot-com visionaries of the world (deftly mocked on HBO/Mike Judge’s “Silicon Valley”) combine a utopian “change the world” rhetoric with an essentially empty public ethic, one that has virtually nothing to say about economic inequality other than “teach a man to fish”-style Reagan-era platitudes.  Let’s not forget that, just because they look good doing it, that they’re really all that different from the crazy Nevada ranchers we’re able to hate from our superior perches.  Our hatred for the easily mocked hillbilly-racists like Bundy blinds us to the damage done by Google Glass-wearing Brian Cheskys, Jeff Bezos’s, and many other names we haven’t even heard.

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