Law and Liberty in the Sharing Economy

 
“Responding to an evolving hospitality industry, the Texas Hotel & Lodging Association recently started crafting legislation that would give property owners reason to pause before opening their homes and apartments to temporary guests.” The Houston Chronicle reported this story on December 10, 2014, which details the THLA’s attempts to introduce legislation that would regulate innovative short-term lodging businesses such as Airbnb, HomeAway, and VRBO.
 
In my last article on government regulation, I dealt with the Houston City Council’s similar attempts to regulate ride-sharing services Über and Lyft. This story is the same old story.
 
Businesses like Airbnb, HomeAway, and VRBO allow homeowners to put up rooms in their homes for short-term lodgers, much like a hotel or inn, except it is a cheaper and “cozier” alternative to more traditional lodging choices. These rental websites have grown in popularity thanks in part to the success of the “sharing economy,” and it has benefitted both travelers and homeowners. The barriers to entry are low for homeowners, and the lodging choices are cheaper for travelers.
 
The THLA, however, is asking the government to tax and regulate this burgeoning industry. Under the proposed legislation, the operators (e.g., Airbnb, Homeaway, and VRBO) would have to verify that homeowners are registered with state and local authorities as a “hotel occupancy” taxpayer. This would require participating homeowners to remit additional taxes to state and local authorities. It would also require them to meet sanitation and safety standards similar to that of traditional hotels and motels.
 
While these regulations may seem innocuous and rather harmless, what worldview underlies such ennui towards increased government intervention and regulation? It is easy to dismiss these types of regulations as minor inconveniences, a mere “cost of doing business.” Paying occupancy taxes, licensing fees, and keeping one’s house within a certain code of sanitation are not likely to be overly burdensome on anyone seeking to participate in these room-sharing economies. But there is a larger issue at play, and it’s a slow drift from one worldview to another. The principal question, then, is who are we going to let control our property and our resources? Further, who ought to control them? What does it say about us as a society that we are ambivalent about having to pay the government in order to let someone pay us to stay at our house for the weekend? Or when did we become so desensitized to liberty that we think nothing of asking the government to exercise control over our neighbor’s property? Thoughtful Christians should understand that there is a link between Christian liberty—bought by Christ—and political liberty, for they are not merely “conservative” or “liberal” issues. The Bible speaks about these things—liberty, property, economics—and we should therefore listen. Most importantly, however, the gospel calls us to submit every area of our lives to the Lordship of Christ. And with submission to Christ comes freedom and Christian liberty. These inward changes of heart invariably lead to changes in the way we think and act in the marketplace.
 
A spirit of Christian liberty, therefore, encourages people to love their neighbor by using their property to bless their neighbor. A spirit of Christian liberty wishes as much success and prosperity on one’s neighbor as oneself. And a spirit of Christian liberty recognizes that the gifts of property and resources ultimately come from God, not man.
  
The Bible commends political liberty, which requires personal responsibility and moral virtue. But the abandonment of the principles of political liberty does not arise ex nihilo. It begins much further back; I believe it begins with the abandonment of Christian liberty, which ultimately is an abandonment of the gospel in the hearts of the people. When the people abandon the gospel, they abandon the liberty associated with it. When they abandon liberty, they abandon the responsibility and virtue that coincide with liberty (for they are not necessary anymore). As a result, they implicitly seek for a human authority above them to take on the responsibility of liberty. But this is where liberty is lost. The government then becomes responsible for their property, and they lose the ability to use it for their neighbor’s good according to the dictates of their own consciences. Loving their neighbor now requires government approval.
 
In the Bible, this retreat away from liberty under God is illustrated in 1 Samuel 8:10–18. The people of Israel, instead of submitting themselves to the reign of God, demanded a king to “judge [them] like all the nations.” This upset Samuel, and he sought the Lord’s counsel. The future under a king like the other nations was an unsettling prospect for the people:
 
So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his  chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take your male servants and your female servants and the best of your young men, and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
 
Samuel knew that a stronger centralized government would cost the Israelites dearly in terms of their own liberty, but the people were eager to abandon it. Despite Samuel’s warning, the Israelites continued to demand a king to rule over them. And so they forfeited their ability to do with their property and resources as they wished. Consequently, the government began to dictate how the best of their property was going to be used, and the implication is that those resources were not used for the ultimate good of the people.
 
In the same way, when we abandon the idea that liberty under God is a societal good which ought to be pursued, we see the effects of such abandonment in the form of petty laws and regulations. While we should not be unreasonable in our practical resistance to such things, it is important that Christians understand the worldview and values underlying a loss of liberty in the marketplace. The THLA seeks to regulate the room-sharing economy because we have—by our actions over the course of several decades—abdicated the responsibilities associated with liberty and placed them on the government. We should not be surprised then, that an ever-increasing portion of our lives and property are controlled by that same government.
 
Über, Lyft, Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO: these are just a sampling of burgeoning industries that the government actively is seeking to tax and regulate. And yet most of these industries were born of innovation around existing regulations and restrictions on older industries. The end result of these regulations is that it punishes innovation instead of rewarding it. Liberty, on the other hand (whether Christian or political liberty) seeks to reward and encourage the innovation and success of others. This is how you love your neighbor in the marketplace. And it applies to the government as well.
 
If we do not have a robust sense of liberty, petty laws and regulations will only multiply. How could they not? We ourselves have witnessed the massive growth of state intervention over the past fifty years. But the only way we can reclaim this liberty is through the freedom that comes in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is freedom from sin—freedom from covetousness. Only then will we see the fruits of liberty. In the meantime, we as Christians can work towards these ends on both fronts—by first preaching the gospel with our words and our lives, and secondly by advocating for the fruit of the ends which we seek: liberty under God.
 
Kyle Bryant is an attorney (and urban design enthusiast) with Bryant Law in Houston, Texas. His practice focuses on civil litigation and family law issues. He is also an active member at Sojourn Heights Church in The Heights neighborhood of Houston. He can be reached at kyle@bryantlaw.net