The phrase, “sharing economy,” when referring to services such as Airbnb or Uber, is camouflage language. “Sharing” is what we urge our children to do with their toys at playtime. If, however, our kids rent their toys out, it is the “getting paid” economy, in the words of San Francisco’s super-pol, Willie Brown. Lyft’s slogan is “Your Friend with a Car,” but my friends don’t charge for a lift. (Using “sharing” to describe, say, free recycling or a co-op housing’s common kitchen, is another matter.)

In some ways, these new peer-to-peer purchases are a step back to a more informal economy, the economy of guys repairing cars in their front yards, women crafting hair-dos in their kitchens, laborers waiting on street corners for construction jobs, workers selling their homemade lunches to fellow employees, and the like. This is work that is unrecorded, untaxed, and unregulated. In developing countries, many, if not most, workers labor in the informal economy. The twenty-first-century American, high-tech versions are certainly recorded in multiple online receipt systems; whether and how much those transactions are taxed is a matter of struggle now in many communities, as is the issue of whether and how much they are regulated. We have been there before.

Some Past “Sharing”

In the later decades of the nineteenth century, most Americans, by best estimates, sometime in their lives lodged—payed for a room, a bed, or a part of a bed—or boarded—payed for a room and meals—rather than living in their own home. And a high proportion of families, often headed by widows, took in lodgers or ran boarding establishments. Although sometimes it was a matter of convenience, as in middle-class boarding houses for young white-collar and professional workers newly arrived in the big city, most often lodging and boarding were matters of dire financial need on both sides of the transaction. In some urban neighborhoods, poor immigrant families leased out makeshift beds in kitchens to even poorer immigrants. At times in the early twentieth century, jitneys—informal, shared cabs—flooded the streets of American cities. A mass transit strike or boycott would spur dozens or hundreds of car-owners to turn their vehicles into quasi-buses, charging what the traffic would bear. These were usually short-lived experiments.

New peer-to-peer purchases are a step back to a more informal economy.

Why did these peer-to-peer arrangements diminish in the twentieth century? Some went away because economic needs diminished. Incomes increased and housing became more available and affordable, so the need to lodge or take in lodgers dropped. Cities took over mass transit lines and reduced costs, while personal cars became more affordable, drying up the demand for jitney service, except in some poor, neglected neighborhoods.

A broader explanation is that businesses and workers in certain fields used regulation to limit competition. Craft unions historically created barriers to entry, requiring apprenticeship for membership and membership for union-only jobs. But their power has faded. The professions, such as dentistry, veterinary medicine, accounting, law, counseling, and, of course, the professoriate have high barriers to entry. Their power has not faded. Other sorts of regulations—housing standards for construction work, zoning rules for hotels, quality testing for food growers and processors, drug testing for medicines, and the like—made entry into certain industries very expensive. If people need to get tested or licensed or inspected—or, say, get a taxi medallion—to work, there are fewer workers and each earns higher income. (Such regulations also provide opportunities for regulatory capture and plain old corruption.) This is the “free-market” complaint against the twentieth-century economy and the case for encouraging peer-to-peer transactions outside of the standard regulatory constraints.

On the other hand, in many cases, regulations arose after public complaints about wide-open, unstructured business: watered-down milk and watered-down beer, spoiled and sickening food, fraudulent patent medicines and imposter doctors, unsafe housing, and the like. The jitney cab drivers almost instantly drew complaints for overcharging, overcrowding, reckless driving, and dishonesty. Boarding houses were charged (rightly or wrongly) as neighborhood blights—sites of loose morals and illness-inducing crowding. New health and building standards ruled some boarding houses out. Zoning, starting in the 1920s, protected the quiet and the property values of  middle-class residential neighborhoods by penning the rooming houses into the inner city.

Perhaps one reason we are seeing a resurgence in peer-to-peer transactions, tech developments aside, is the greater economic need for them in a stagnant economy. (A contributor to Slate last year called for bringing back rooming and flop houses as the solution to the housing crunch.) In any case, the new, tech-connected sharing-economy services seem to be so economically attractive—sharers are making money and buyers are it while getting more convenience—that they are likely to forestall twenty-first century efforts at regulation.

I received a couple of quick responses to this post that make  some good points.

University of Arizona sociologist Corey Abramson points out that in neighborhoods of scarcity today, the informal economy “never went away.” This includes ride services, unofficial restaurants, and even medical care. And he notes that, in such settings, it is not uncommon for people to indeed pay for rides from their friends or acquaintances, just so as to avoid incurring an obligation to reciprocate.

Writer/photographer Thomas Levy stresses that today’s version of peer-to-peer is really peer-to-middleman-to-peer and that the middlemen—the high-tech companies such as Uber—can squeeze a lot of profit out of the often under-employed service providers they hire.