Culture

The Bogus Case(s) against Uber

There are many cases being made against the company; protectionism is the only one that makes sense.

Uber apparently reached a new low of depravity during the Sydney hostage crisis, expanding on a unique business model that seems to consist solely of raping its customers and violating the Fourth Amendment rights of journalists to include willfully allowing Australians to be killed by an Islamist sex offender. Uber’s depraved indifference during the Islamist attack on an urban coffee shop is drawing negative attention to the company. But the most winning argument against the $18 billion ride-sharing service is still the old-fashioned one: No established industry should ever have to endure competition from new players.

That at least seems to be the case for the handful of governments that have recently banded together to keep Uber from breaking up taxi monopolies and exposing citizens to more transportation options. Uber is outlawed or facing bans in multiple U.S. cities along with India, the Netherlands, and Spain. This weekend the birthplace of Frédéric Bastiat got into the act, as French president François Hollande announced that the low-cost shuttle-style service UberPop would be outlawed after the turn of the new year.

The French ban has the virtue of being the most honest — and certainly the most French — attack on the taxi app so far. The government issued the order after the republic’s powerful taxi unions launched a “snail” attack on French commuters, tying up highways and shutting down mobility while brandishing banners with slogans like “Papa Hollande, save us from these cancerous predators” — a phrase that sounds just as creepy, totalitarian, and nonsensical in the original as it does in translation. The French demonstration was valuable because it was pure: The case against Uber is that there really isn’t a case. When you have to use force against a company, you’ve lost in the competitive market.

Taxi monopolies are not going away. Roads are easily regulated. Uber’s floor wax/dessert topping dissonance about whether it is a livery service or a tech company has been a valuable wedge against the power of livery organizations’ government-enforced strangleholds. But any way you drive your car can be regulated; and every way you make money is already regulated. Uber has come close to bringing a slightly freer market in hired driving services, but its vulnerability to government is as severe as its business model is easily reproduced. For all that, the company is being cast as a villain opposed to free speech, protection of women, even human life.

That was clear in the most recent scandal over emergency surge pricing. Uber compounded the horror of the Islamist attack on a Sydney coffee shop by apparently leaving fleeing Australians at the whim of a madman. But it is not clear what panic the car service on a phone incited or added to.

The New South Wales Police Department was urging calm in the retail regions around the hostage standoff. “The message at the moment is that you should continue your business as usual,” NSW chief Catherine Burns announced during the standoff. “If you had plans to come into the city then you should go about your plans as usual.” Good people were taking selfies nearby — leading to an entirely new moral panic over the insouciance of local rubberneckers. Yet because Uber is not shielded from the laws of supply and demand (neither are the rest of us, but that’s for another day), it is calumniated throughout the English-speaking time zones.

The frozen o-ring in this catastrophe was Uber’s well-known surge pricing, which raises sale prices in response to increased demand. This reporter is not an Uber customer but has witnessed Uber customers discussing preferred means of avoiding surge pricing, such as trying to flag down or call a traditional cab — both of which options remained in effect as local police contained sheikh Man Haron Monis’s rampage. People in the land of the walkabout were not without options for getting away from the scene of the crime. In fact, travelers had more options during this week’s events than they did five years ago, when Islamic mass murder was also a feature of peacetime in the developed world. Were government to take its talons off the taxi market entirely, customers would have yet more options, including what are now colorfully called gypsy cab services as well as the owner-operated minibuses that have made Third World travel cheaper and more efficient than First World travel. As things stand now, Uber is an additional option if you’re willing to pay for it.

Nothing will be taken away from French travelers if UperPop is allowed to continue operating in that European state. The vaulting pride of Belgium is not insulted by Uber’s operating in Europe’s bureaucratic center. Uber committed no offense against common decency in Sydney. It simply gives people with good credit and cell phones — generally speaking, the wealthiest and most comfortable people on Earth — another way to travel short distances.

That includes travel after consumption of alcohol, by the way. The company suggests it should be credited for combating drunk driving, pointing to a drop in DUI reports in Seattle after Uber’s network of drivers began operating in the Emerald City. Uber doesn’t quite make that claim compelling, but sometimes its detractors, in their bloodshot opposition to the company, inadvertently do. The intuitive case that a more widely available cab-style service will reduce the number of happy-hour killers on the road is not contradicted, and possibly supported, by statistical evidence, as police representatives acknowledge in an LAist.com hit piece from July.

Government’s desire to abridge freedom of travel is kingly, as this anti-market Washington Post column points out. Thus the campaign against Uber is loud, sustained, and non-rational. It’s smart for Uber’s opponents to attack the company on contradictory grounds, so they do just that: Uber is a frippery for the rich; but it’s also a vital utility that dare not charge a premium. It takes business from struggling immigrant cab drivers; but its drivers are insufficiently vetted immigrants. According to the Post it is analogous to the Depression-era “informal economy” people entered “when they couldn’t find stable jobs”; but it doesn’t pay its drivers enough. Uber is insufficiently close to the government; but it is too involved in the democratic process. There are many other complaints. None of them make sense, but sense doesn’t matter when you’re solving a non-problem.

— Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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