On Jobs and ‘Jobs’

by Kevin D. Williamson

Uber, you will be shocked to learn, does not apply rigorous econometric standards to its public-relations material. That is the complaint from Robert Reich and Alison Griswold, who protest that the firm boasts about the jobs it has created when in fact its drivers are not classified as employees but independent contractors. Professor Reich, a lawyer who sometimes plays an economist on television, says: “They can’t have it both ways. They can’t say they’re creating all these new jobs and then say ‘Oh, we’re not responsible for these jobs because they’re not employees.’ That’s double-booking.” We all eagerly await his application of similarly high standards to, e.g., the steady stream of outright fabrications produced by Hillary Rodham Clinton, Harry Reid, etc.

It’s a safe assumption that Uber’s PR weasels are the same species of mustelid as every other PR weasel, and I have no love for them. But setting aside the question of whether press releases ought to be obliged to follow the terminological practices of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the implicit Reich-Griswold view is an interesting illustration of the mindset of managerial progressivism, which holds that the normative state of affairs for the vast majority of people in the modern world is to be dependency, either as public wards or as employees. The assumption is that most people cannot be expected to take responsibility for their income, for their health care, for making arrangements for child care and retirement, etc., and so somebody—employers or government—must be deputized to do this for them. (Note Professor Reich’s formulation: We’re responsible/not responsible.) This is the classic progressive view of human beings as liabilities rather than assets, liabilities that are dealt with by the issuance of fortnightly checks and the maintenance of certain benefits packages.

Independent contractor? Quelle horreur!

F. A. Hayek worried (presciently, as it turns out) that the two faces of dependency—as public ward or as hireling—would encourage certain undesirable mental and political habits, a kind of deep-set servility born of the delegation of basic responsibilities from the individual and the family to large bureaucracies, public or private. The Company Man and the Obamaphone Lady have more in common than you’d think.

Ironically, this serves to subtly reinforce the heroic self-conception of entrepreneurs and the people some Republican candidates like to refer to as “job creators.” Entrepreneurs do play an irreplaceable role in economic life (which is to say, in life) and I am second to none in my admiration for them. But the Randian, cultish reverence that we have developed for people who successfully started a business or three is at times absurd. We consult the Gateses and Bransons of the world on questions entirely alien to their actual bodies of knowledge on the implicit theory that people who are good at running software companies or travel-and-entertainment conglomerates must have insights into how the planet’s climate works or what the population of homo sapiens on the planet should add up to. The root of this reverence is terror: The Reich-Griswold view predominates, and that some people have the courage to step out of the comfortable rhythm of receiving a check every two weeks, a performance review every quarter, an extra week’s vacation every five years, etc., strikes many moderns as the equivalent of climbing Everest without sherpas or supplies.

It was not that long ago that independent proprietorship was an ordinary form of economic organization, and that working for wages was seen as only a step removed from serfdom. But nobody thought that the guy who built a successful laundry into a dozen successful laundries was an oracle—and nobody argued that the independent operator was being victimized because he was not working for wages. Now, the progressives tell us that working as a contractor isn’t a “real job.” But all those (questionable) ads on television and the radio offering the opportunity to “start your own business and be your own boss” suggest that the longing for that sort of independence remains.

There are probably better long-run ways to make a living, or part of a living, driving a car than working with Uber (take Vincent’s advice—make the down-payment on the Town Car) but Uber does solve a lot of the problems that the new small operator faces (lining up customers, processing payments, etc.). The Left’s moral crusade against Uber is partly about protecting ancient Democrat-supporting fiefdoms—the local taxi cartels—but it is also an expression of the deeply ingrained belief that most people cannot handle independence and responsibility, that most people are best suited to punching clocks and saying “Thank you, sir, may I have another?” every two weeks. I very much doubt that that will be the normal situation 20 or 30 years hence, which is why I think of Professor Reich et al. as more reactionary than progressive. 

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