Infrastructure Control as Innovation Regulation

The ongoing ride-sharing wars in New York City are interesting to watch because they signal the potential move by state and local officials to use infrastructure management as an indirect form of innovation control or competition suppression. It is getting harder for state and local officials to defend barriers to entry and innovation using traditional regulatory rationales and methods, which are usually little more than a front for cronyist protectionism schemes. Now that the public has increasingly enjoyed new choices and better services in this and other fields thanks to technological innovation, it is very hard to convince citizens they would be better off without more of the same.

If, however, policymakers claim that they are limiting entry or innovation based on concerns about how disruptive actors supposedly negatively affect local infrastructure (in the form of traffic or sidewalk congestion, aesthetic nuisance, deteriorating infrastructure, etc.), that narrative can perhaps make it easier to sell the resulting regulations to the public or, more importantly, the courts. Going forward, I suspect that this will become a commonly-used playbook for many state and local officials looking to limit the reach of new technologies, including ride-sharing companies, electric scooters, driverless cars, drones, and many others.

To be clear, infrastructure control is both (a) a legitimate state and local prerogative; and (b) something that has been used in the past to control innovation and entry in other sectors. But I suspect that this approach is about to become far more prevalent because a full-frontal defense of barriers to innovation is far more likely to face serious public and legal challenges. For example, limiting ride-sharing competition in NYC on the grounds that it hurts local taxi cartels is unappealing to citizens and the courts alike. So, NYC is now making it all about traffic congestion. Even if that regulatory rationale is bunk, it is a much harder narrative to counter in the court of public opinion or the courts of law. For that reason, we can expect more and more state and local governments to just flip the narrative about innovation regulation going forward in this fashion.

How should defenders of innovation and competition respond to state and local efforts to use infrastructure control as an indirect form of innovation regulation? First, call them out on it if it really is just naked protectionism by another name. Second, to the extent there may be something their asserted concerns about infrastructure problems, propose alternative solutions that do not freeze innovation and new entry outright. The best approach is to borrow a page out of Coase’s playbook and use smarter pricing and property rights solutions. Or perhaps use unique funding mechanisms for new and better infrastructure that could accommodate ongoing entry and innovation.