Even if, per Thomas Paine, “we have it in our power to begin the world over again,” few among us are likely to be presented with the opportunity — a reality that, in many countries, presents real philosophical problems. If the state is ever-present, stretching backwards into time immemorial, it can be difficult to work out exactly what it is for.
Happily, Americans do not have this trouble, for their government came not only with a set of instructions but was inaugurated by a statement of principle. Explaining the purpose of government in 1776, Thomas Jefferson argued that in order to secure the rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” A decade or so later, fighting to ensure that this idea made it into the new Constitution, Patrick Henry told his compatriots that they were “not to inquire how your trade may be increased, nor how you are to become a great and powerful people, but how your liberties can be secured.” Liberty, Henry contended, “ought to be the direct end.”
Those who wonder how we’re doing two and a bit centuries later might consider that, this week, the state of Virginia decided that its purpose was to determine for its citizens whom they may hire to drive them around — more specifically, that innovative transportation companies Uber and Lyft were to be outlawed. The firms, which allow users with smartphones instantly to find drivers of taxis or private cars, have not merely attracted the ire of regulators, but are apparently liable to be literally stopped by force. “Arlington County police,” ABC confirms, “say they will be out in full force Friday” — “on the lookout for the car-sharing companies after a cease-and-desist order was issued by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles on Thursday.” Thus has the state that produced Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson contrived to bring the Intolerable Acts to the taxi business.
As is wholly appropriate in a free country, Uber and Lyft’s philosophy has been to set themselves up first and answer questions later. Alas, those questions have been frequently forthcoming. At the time of writing, New York City, Washington D.C., Miami, Seattle, and Chicago had all moved to prohibit the service. In London, drivers of the iconic black cabs are threatening to strike and to cause jams if the city’s regulators do not move to do the same. Boston’s Taxi Drivers Association (read: union) has done just that. And in much of Europe, the idea has been dead on arrival. Indeed, even in states that permit the services to operate, competitors are doing their level best to shut them down. This week, Colorado became the first state explicitly to permit the companies to operate, a move that was quickly slammed by the existing players — on the ever-malleable grounds of “safety,” the perennial best friend of monopolists and cartel owners worldwide, natch.
There are, Milton Friedman observed, “two classes of people: the selfish special interests on the one hand, and the so-called do-gooders on the other.” Unwittingly, the latter agitate on behalf of the former, shouting their social-justice-and-living-wage slogans and maintaining hostility to change in the name of “progress.” Thus, in the name of “fairness” and “oversight,” Friedman argued, does “the ICC [the Interstate Commerce Commission] became a cartel agent for the trucking industry as well as the railroads,” the Civil Aeronautics Board become “a cartel agent for the airlines,” and the Federal Communications Commission become “a cartel agent for the broadcasters.” Thus, too, will the existing pool of American cab drivers fight tooth and nail to expand the government’s role in their industry and to consolidate their power against those who display the temerity to innovate to the public’s benefit. We can’t have outsiders coming in and giving us a run for our money, the reaction goes. Better keep them off the roads.
They can’t put it like that, of course. Even in 2014, “we think you should be forced to use our over-priced service” doesn’t poll well. So they are reduced to scaremongering — to suggesting that Uber is more dangerous than are traditional taxis, even though, as TechCrunch notes, there is no evidence for this whatsoever; that there is something unacceptable about the insurance that Uber provides its passengers because it is different than the sort that the government requires of its licensed cabs; and that Uber’s system for inspecting the background and driving history of its employees couldn’t possibly be as good as the state’s. Lack of evidence to one side, these presumptions make little sense in theory. By their nature, all Internet-based services maintain ride logs that can be instantly used to link the passenger to the driver — a killer safety app, as they say. And, being responsive to the market, Uber, Lyft, and others provide rating systems that allow users to judge which are the good drivers and offer quick customer-service centers through which complaints can be processed. If you wonder why this is important, try filing a complaint against a New York City cab driver.
Sadly, in many places the Luddites are winning, having successfully convinced a panoply of states and cities that it is their role to decide who may drive a cab and who may not. “To secure the integrity of the taxi guild,” the motto might read, “Governments are instituted among Men to ban the fruits of technology and to restrict the supply of cars.” Give me Lyft or give me Death?
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.