Today’s gig economy matches independent contractors with available jobs, but California’s 2019 independent-contractor status law, Assembly Bill 5, severely limits workers’ options.

In opposition to the law, the open letter of 153 scholars that I initiated for the Independent Institute focused on Assembly Bill 5’s harmful consequences in the coronavirus pandemic. This harm has a parallel in history.

When the Black Death swept Europe, workers and peasants sought flexibility and free contracting. Government officials and established business and agricultural interests, however, sought to suppress such independent contracting and labor mobility.

In 1371, the Peasants’ Revolt, also called Wat Tyler’s Rebellion or The Great Rising, was a grassroots revolt that took place across much of southeastern England. The uprising was partly a tax revolt, but it was set off by official restrictions on free contracting in this era following the Black Death. The revolt did not overthrow the government, but feudal labor service was replaced by free contracting for money. The Jacquerie of 1358 in France had a similar origin.

The response of government authorities across Europe to the labor market after the Black Death was an important cause of what economic historians call the Great Divergence.

That divergence was between increasingly developed northwestern Europe and economically stagnant eastern Europe. The legacy of that divergence still affects the levels of development in those regions of Europe to this day. A major source of the divergence was the rise of free contracting and flexibility of labor in the West and its suppression in the East.

UCLA political scientist Margaret E. Peters points out that “immediately after the Black Death,” several European states enacted wage and mobility laws. “In the 1400s, more states, especially those in Eastern Europe,” limited labor mobility and increased the burdens of serfdom. “These laws increased in their severity in the 1500s and 1600s to the point where movement of peasants was highly restricted. In contrast, many serfdom laws were repealed or had fallen into disuse in Western Europe during the same period.”

This look-back at history should remind legislators everywhere of the importance of encouraging—not hobbling—free contracting and flexibility.

Officials must not be diverted, as a court was in 2018 in the Dynamex case, by what some call “unequal bargaining power.”

The Dynamex court discussed what it called the “economic reality” standard before it turned to its own test. Under the so-called economic-reality approach, people should be considered employees rather than independent contractors who, “are economically dependent upon the hiring business.” The court said the authorities blocked free contracting because it may lead individuals to “accept work for substandard wages or working conditions.”

Economist Morgan O. Reynolds shows that the belief in labor’s exploitation and underpayment in a free market is “illogical and lacks a serious empirical foundation.”

Economic science makes clear that no one enters a contract without expecting to be better off—including delivery drivers and platform operators in the gig economy.

In the face of the wrongheaded Dynamex decision, the least the legislature can do is expand exemptions.

Before Assembly Bill 5 the law already exempted individuals engaged in the practice of law, medicine, dentistry, optometry, architecture, engineering, teaching, or accounting. Why shouldn’t delivery drivers have the same freedoms?

Legislators could point out that platforms like GrubHub, Postmates, DoorDash, and others are tech-based facilitating intermediaries, while contracting delivery drivers are in a separate line of work.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has shown he is willing to be flexible by allowing medical and nursing students to work before they have their licenses. I hope that in this time of crisis and disruption, the legislature will likewise be flexible and do the humanitarian and compassionate thing: suspend Assembly Bill 5.