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Why we libertarians love Uber not just as a service but as an issue

I and my libertarian friends all love Uber. By that I don’t just mean that we love using Uber, the service, although I am sure that just like many others, we do. I mean that we love talking about Uber, as a libertarian issue, as an issue that nicely illustrates what libertarianism is all about and the sorts of things that libertarians believe in. In particular, we believe in: technological innovation and the freedom to do it, for the benefit of all, except those in the immediate vicinity of it and overtaken by it, because they make a living from the technology that is being overtaken.

Example. A couple of weeks ago I attended a talk about Art, which suggested that Art is not abundant enough and not benefiting enough people. A big part of the response from the floor during the Q&A afterwards was: It depends what you mean by Art. By most reasonable definitions, there has never been more Art. Prominent London libertarian Professor Tim Evans compared the attitude of the speaker to that of a London Black Cab driver fretting about how to keep London Black Cabs going, what with so many Londoners now preferring Uber Cabs. My point is not that this was a fair comparison, although I thought it was. My point is that we libertarians love Uber so much that we insert Uber into conversations about quite other things. Uber is something that we just love to talk about. And it’s not just Tim Evans, and me, and Johnathan Pearce, and Rob Fisher and Perry de Havilland who love to write and talk about Uber. Based on the conversations I’ve been having with fellow libertarians, it’s pretty much all of us. This is an issue which unites all of us, and which divides our opponents. After all, even anti-libertarians need a taxi ride from time to time, and they prefer it to be cheap and obtainable rather than expensive and unpurchasable.

At the very moment I first typed in the above paragraph, an email arrived from the IEA, telling me about how the IEA’s boss, Mark Littlewood, has been mixing it with Black Cabbies on the radio.

As for me, I found my interest renewed in the Uber battle when I encountered this Black Cab, last August, in Victoria Street, just up the road from the Houses of Parliament:

BlackCabAdvertisingUber1

Why was this cab of interest to me? Well, let’s take a close look at the rather intriguing politics lesson on the side of this Black Cab:

BlackCabAdvertisingUber2

As you can see from this posting at my personal blog, way back in August when I took those photos, I had in mind to put something here way back, provoked by them. But the delay didn’t matter. This issue is not going away any time soon.

The taxi driver whose taxi sported this advert clearly thought that this was an advert about how wicked Uber is. Uber lobbies. Uber puts Prime Ministerial friends on its payroll. Bad Uber. But to me, this read more like an advert in favour of David Cameron. Cameron wants Uber to flourish in London. Does he now? I did not know this. Good for Cameron. And bad for Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, who does not.

This is also an advert for Uber itself. Uber is cheaper … because it pays no tax! Come again … Uber is cheaper, you say? Hm, interesting. I must give it a go.

The LTDA, who, as you can see from the top picture, is responsible for the above advert, thinks that Uber is systematically breaking the law. What that tells me is not that Uber is bad, but that the law, insofar as it now impinges upon Uber, is an ass.

To me, the really interesting thing about Uber as an issue is how it makes a nonsense of the old Public Choice dilemma in pro-free market lobbying and opinion-mongering. I’m talking about the fact, which it does often tend to be, that when there is a lurch, proposed or actual, towards a free market, unleashed either by politics or by technology or by a mixture of the two, the people who suffer or who look like they will soon suffer are highly concentrated and easily organised and know exactly who they are. However, those who will benefit from the new dispensation are dispersed and hard to organise and tend not to know who they are. Consequently you get this imbalance in the political argument, in favour of the status quo, even if, in the longer run, many more people would benefit from the new dispensation than the old, and would like it very much, in the event that that ever discovered that they were benefiting from it.

Uber might have been invented to solve the above problem.

Thought: maybe there is a sense in which it was invented to solve this problem. Discuss.

The Adam Smith Institute was definitely invented to solve this problem. From the moment they started out in the late 1970s, they have been devising policies which unite and energise supporters but which divide and confuse opponents. So, although the ASI did not invent Uber, they have been supporting it since way back, exactly as if they had invented it.

For you see, Uber, by its nature, makes it very clear to its beneficiaries that they are indeed benefitting. If you are an Uber driver, you know it. If you are even an occasional Uber customer, again, you know it. And okay, the life of an Uber customer is not totally transformed for the better (in the way that the life of many Black Cabbies is now being totally transformed for the worse), but it is definitely improved. Ten quid here, twenty quid there. If you are a regular buzzer about in a place like London, it soon adds up, as does the time you save and the anxiety you are spared if you frequent somewhat out-of-the-way spots where Black Cabs are not so easy to come by.

But best of all, all of these beneficiaries, both drivers and customers, are, by their nature, organisable, by Uber itself. Uber knows who all its potential supporters are. I particularly enjoyed watching a Black Cab spokesman fulminating on the television, a month or two ago now, about how the fiendish Uber had told all its drivers and customers to sign an online petition! It was like Uber was cheating by doing this, and I’m sure that the Black Cab man did in some deep sense feel exactly this. The guy made it sound like you wouldn’t be allowed to be part of Uber ever again, either as a driver or as a customer, if you didn’t sign the petition, which of course was not so. But the mere fact that Uber knows who all these people are and can merely alert them all to the existence of a political push to squash Uber and ask them all to sign the petition to not squash Uber, and to do all that with extreme ease, totally changes the politics of it all.

Take that radio show that IEA boss Mark Littlewood was on. The radio people had no trouble whistling up Black Cabbies to put the Black Cabbie case. The Black Cabbies all know each other and have done for decades. But neither did they have any trouble contacting people to talk up Uber, the way Littlewood did, even though Uber has only been in existence for the blink of an eye.

Which is why so many of London’s local politicians of a free market persuasion are now so eager to join in this ruckus, on the side of Uber. Another circumstance which got me noticing Uber recently was a posting at Guido, about how some Tory Westminster Councillors had sent a letter to Transport for London telling them to lay off Uber. If you want a level regulatory playing field, said these Tories, don’t regulate Uber, deregulate the Black Cabs.

It particularly got my attention that one of the politicians who signed this letter was JP Floru, a man with whom I am personally acquainted. Here is an SQOTD I posted here, taken from his excellent book Heavens on Earth. Not long ago JP Floru gave a talk at Libertarian Home, about how we libertarians should do more party politics than we are in the habit of doing, and how we should concentrate on issues that reach out beyond the core faithful. This talk, as you can imagine, got a somewhat mixed reception from the core faithful audience who attended it, but my point is that JP Floru obviously reckons Uber to be just the sort of issue that practical, hard-nosed libertarian-inclined but serious politicians such as he is trying so hard to be, and such as he thinks more of us should also try to be, ought to join in and get political about.

I sent JP Floru a congratulatory email about his Uber-lobbying, and he replied by emailing me this link to a piece he recently wrote for Conservative Home on the issue. He clearly thinks that this is an issue which it will benefit him to be seen shouting about.

The ultimate proof of the attractiveness of the Uber issue to mainstream political people (and hence also to us libertarians) is that, as my pictures above nicely illustrate, the Prime Minister has joined in on this, on the side of Uber. Is Prime Minister Cameron pro the free market? At all? Argument rages about that, and this is exactly the kind of argument that he is eager not to see settled. He stands above and beyond all mere ideological disputes. He is a man of the extreme centre, unlike the Corbynite rabble opposite. And yet he, Mister Non-Ideology, chooses to back Uber against the Black Cabs.

In other words, we libertarians are onto a winner with this. Even if, in London, in the short run, perhaps because a Labourite wins the next election for Mayor of London and chooses to oppose Uber a whole lot more fiercely even than current Mayor Johnson does, this is and will remain a very good argument for us.

Actually, I think that whoever the Labour candidate is for Mayor of London, he or she will probably not do much to stop Uber in London, which is another way of making my same point.

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20 comments to Why we libertarians love Uber not just as a service but as an issue

  • Mr Ed

    Uber, Uber, über alles…

    I’ll get my coat…

  • DP

    Dear Mr Micklethwaite

    The LTDA’s advert seems libellous to three of the parties named. As Mr Worstall* never tires of saying in his various writings over many outlets, Uber et al are all paying the correct amount of tax according to current tax legislation.

    There are striking parallels between Uber and e-cigarettes. The anti-smoker brigade wish to stop their use because it threatens their livelihoods, many of whom are on 6 figure salary packages, with lots of jetting around the world to congratulate each other on what a good job they are doing and planning their next bout of smoker harassment. E-cigarettes deliver the pleasures of smoking without the alleged health risks, thereby undermining the entire anti-smoker industry’s basic business model. Their response as chronicled by Mr Puddlecote* is a joy to behold.

    DP

    * newer readers – see left sidebar under Commentary for links

  • JohnW

    It clearly undermines the Left’s entire theory of capital, employment and wages see Yaron Brook 3.00 mins onwards.

  • Tedd

    Yet another subject to divide the optimists from the pessimists. Is technology — in the form of Uber and similar products — inherently liberating or inherently liberty-destroying (by creating ever greater targets for licensing and regulation)?

    I’m beginning to think it’s the wrong question. Technology is clearly both and, since we will presumably continue to become more technological, this dual nature of technology itself becomes an argument in favour of a libertarian approach. If we go down the other path, toward reflexively regulating technology, then license and regulation will continue to become increasingly influential until there is virtually no aspect of life it doesn’t touch.

    Of course, that argument itself depends on the premise that liberty is a good thing. I’m also beginning to realize that a lot of people reject that premise.

  • RRS

    Brian is astute to note something quite subtle in the Uber “issue.

    The Uber use activity is basically a relationship occurring in a particular circumstance in which the separate and disparate (usually freely determined) objectives of differing individuals are satisfied commutatively.

    In the commutative process of that relationship, assets (a vehicle, driver’s time, fuel and maintenance) are allocated, as is the use of a public good (roadways, traffic controls) together with the voluntary association of an intermediary (Uber).

    The resulting “economic” condition is labeled Capitalism.

    Offense to a libertarian mindset arises from interference with relationships, the prescribing or proscription of circumstances, intermeddling intermediations, and displacement of the commutative in satisfying objectives.

  • bloke in spain

    Not so far off topic: Some french friends introduced me to blablacar last week. Worth lokking at in its .fr ,es & even .co.uk incarnations.
    I know I’ll be pitching for blabla’ers on the long haul south, in a couple of weeks. The money’s immaterial but the company will be rewarding.

  • “The sharing economy” really is a euphemism for “pure capitalism”

  • RRS

    On the Political issue referred to are there not just 4 simple questions?

    What is wrong with the relationship?

    What is wrong with the circumstance in which the relationship is established?

    What is wrong with the way the relationship comes into being?

    What is wrong with voluntary use of the intermediary service?

  • lucklucky

    “This also an advert for Uber itself. Uber is cheaper … because it pays no tax! Come again … Uber is cheaper, you say?”

    Not paying taxes is one of incentives to deal with that person or company.

    They are not giving power to politics.

  • Paul Marks

    The laws(regulations) on this matter are indeed absurd.

    As Chief Justice Sir Edward Coke pointed out in the case of Dr Bonham…..

    The Common Law recognises no such “crime” as conducing a trade or profession without a piece of paper called a “license”.

  • Rob Thorpe

    The thing that worries me about Uber is security. A wave of hacking is running through tech companies. Many new attacks have been discovered recently, some of which are quite simple.

    I don’t want information about the journeys I’ve taken sitting on a server somewhere. At some point it will inevitably be hacked. All sorts of useful things could be lurking there, such as the likely dates where I’m away from home and my house is a good target for burglary.

    I’d rather make cash transactions with taxi drivers that aren’t recorded on any database.

  • Laird

    Rob Thorpe, what makes you think that you taxi trips aren’t recorded on a database? Cab drivers always log in where they picked up a fare and where they took him. If you pay with cash they might not have that trip associated with your name, but that’s not the case if you pay via any electronic medium.

    Anyway, someone hacking into the Uber database and going to the trouble of figuring out your travel habits merely to rob your home seems a very remote risk. I have bigger things to worry about.

  • […] Samizdata, Brian Micklethwait discusses why Uber comes up in conversation with libertarians … […]

  • Rob Thorpe

    Laird, I always pay in cash.

    Think about it like this…. Let’s suppose someone hacks into the Uber database and nicks the whole thing. That’s not unlikely, it’s happened several times recently (Carphone Warehouse, Home Depot & T-Mobile). They can then setup a website that offers a service to burglars. For a fee they can provide likely dates and times that people are away from their homes. It would be like a startup business with burglars the customers.

    This sort of thing already happens. On Tor sites you can buy identities, this is usually the result of a hack. Recently several popular brands of wireless access point were hacked. A hacking group gained control of hundreds of thousands of these, a botnet. They then sold access to it as a sort of spamming farm and denial-of-service-attack farm. Others have used these to intercept online banking details.

  • Alisa

    So what, Rob? Nothing is risk-free.

  • Laird

    Rob, I hope that you always have the ability to pay in cash. I fear, however, that our governments are conspiring to remove that option.

    But as to your point, while I understand it, it is extremely low on my list of fears. Perhaps that’s because I don’t travel much, or with any predicable pattern, so hacking my Uber records would be fruitless. YMMV. But if someone wanted to burgle your house, wouldn’t it be simpler to ascertain that you have a job, and what your work hours are, and then break in at leisure during that time? Why pay a “data farmer”? Identity theft is used for electronic crimes, not B&E.

  • Robert Thorpe

    Alisa, nothing is risk free. However, why take the risk of identity theft or robbery for such a small gain?

    Laird,

    Governments may take cash away from us, but they haven’t done yet.

    I suggest you change your list of fears. Don’t look at things in terms of risks, looks at things in terms of opportunities. Think like an entrepreneurial criminal whether a private criminal or one working for a hostile foreign state. The possibilities for causing mayhem are endless. Many companies are very badly defended, the recent TalkTalk hack – for example – was extremely simple.

    My advice is to stick to a very few sites that you trust. It’s not worth using internet sites that require a lot of personal data if the benefit is small.

  • Tedd

    I still think there’s a place for a quasi-anonymous, proxy method of electronic payment. You have a credit card that is linked to your personal identity only through a third party. All the recipient of your payment gets is an account number; same for the bank who issues the credit card. In that sense, it’s much like a numbered bank account. No, it’s not truly anonymous. But it’s anonymous enough for most commercial transactions, and it doesn’t require any new infrastructure at all — no new currency; no new physical method of payment. The credit card companies aren’t very motivated to do it yet because it must be clear to them that few people care about their information being tracked. But if enough people did care then it would make good business sense.

  • Alisa

    Alisa, nothing is risk free. However, why take the risk of identity theft or robbery for such a small gain?

    Because as Laird pointed out above, the risk in this case seems too remote.

    But even if it isn’t, for someone other than you the gain may not be so small at all. I am not dismissing the need to point out practical risks, but ultimately it is for each person to weigh risks against potential gain, and that balance can vary quite widely among different individuals.

  • Rob Thorpe

    Alisa, certainly things are personal, I might think differently if I was poorer.

    I don’t think the risk is remote though. Remember, almost all of these internet companies keep this kind of data in their databases forever. Even “delete” operations don’t actually delete. So, this risk is not just now, this year, it applies to all future years that you’re alive. The chances of having your identity stolen from a particular service have to be much better than 1%. Let’s say for example, that you’re on 10 services. Each has a 1% chance of being breached in a certain year, add those up it’s more than likely that you’ll be the victim of a hack over a period of more than 10 years.

    In the future hacking techniques will improve and so will security, but it’s not certain that the adoption of security measures will. Some of the services you use may become unsuccessful, they may not have the resources to keep up with modern security practices.