It is a truth universally acknowledged, in the enlightened liberal semi-socialist California circles in which I often move, that Uber is evil. It is accepted as axiomatic that they exploit their drivers; they brazenly reject the rule of democratic law, while simultaneously kowtowing to authoritarian China; they use vicious and/or deceitful tactics; and they ignore the needs of the disabled.
This isn’t really even a subject of discussion any more, among the cohort in question. It is a given. One might even say that “We Are All Already Decided” on the subject. And not without reason! I too can and have publicly criticized them, and rattled off an itemized laundry list of all the ways that Uber has been callous and shady. I too have switched to using Lyft.
What’s more, my friends are far from alone. For instance: that well-known liberal socialist Peter Thiel has called Uber “without question the most ethically challenged company in Silicon Valley.”
And yet. Allow me to humbly propose that the pendulum has perhaps swung too far into backlash. Allow me to suggest that “Uber is evil / represents the worst of capitalism!” is not just wrong, but actually dangerous. Allow me to submit that perhaps Uber is the lesser of two evils.
Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit: the criticism of the so-called “on-demand economy” in general. Yes, that term is Orwellian newspeak. Yes, “servants as a service” is far more accurate. And yet:
It may be too soon to say that “the full-time job is dead,” but I think it’s clear that a growing fraction of workers will find themselves working a fragmented panoply of gigs and contracts, rather than pursuing a full-time career with benefits. Yes, this isn’t near as stable and secure. Yes, many-to-most of these people may find themselves living in the precariat for much of their lives, barring the hoped-for eventual introduction of a basic income.
But at the same time, being a servant-as-a-service is helping to keep a lot of heads above water. “More than a third of respondents said informal work helped them offset the effects of the recession either very much or somewhat,” to quote Bloomberg. What’s more, the fundamental problem the precariat faces is not that the on-demand economy exists; it’s that technology has made whole classes of workers easily replaceable — or, like Uber’s drivers, eventually completely obsolete. If your skills aren’t hard to replace, then you too may well eventually join the precariat. That has nothing to do with on-demand vs. full-time.
Consider the concern for Uber’s “exploited” drivers today; will we be quite as concerned for them when they are no longer being exploited, because they have been replaced by self-driving cars? Somehow I doubt it.
But let’s talk about Uber specifically: greedy, mustache-twirling, John-Galt-worshipping, ravening libertarian Uber, scourge of bylaws and regulators everywhere. They’re very visibly predatory, that’s true. They’re new. They’re high-profile. They’re fighting the status quo.
But just because you have grown to accept the status quo does not mean that it is not at least as evil. I put it to you that — at least in many fields, including car services — libertarian capitalism, as bad as it can get, is still markedly better than the subtle, endemic, bone-deep crony capitalism of the status quo.
Whenever defenders of the status quo object to a new idea on the hallowed grounds of security, you can be pretty confident that they are lying. So it is with Uber. To quote the University of Chicago Law Review:
there is no indication that criminal law will not deter assaults just as well in Uber cars as it does in taxis. In fact, criminal law may work far better, since any passenger who suffers an assault by an Uber driver will actually be able to identify their driver. Not so in a street-hailed cab. Worries about unsafe Uber cars or unsafe driving are of course legitimate, but the experience of riding in a cab in many cities hardly invites confidence that cab drivers or cabs are much better. Perhaps more importantly, is there any reason to think that problems of dangerous or underinsured Uber drivers will not be self-correcting?
Does Uber knowingly violate local law in cities they enter? They sure do. Is knowingly violating the law always an evil thing to do? …No. Not if the law itself is manipulative, exploitative, and written only to benefit a small class of rentiers — which, alas, is all too often the case.
This is by no means theoretical. In France, where two Uber executives have been arrested and face jail time, laws require Uber drivers to wait fifteen minutes between receiving a reservation and picking up passengers, and banned the use of geolocation to see nearby cars, along with ride-sharing by drivers who lack professional (ie taxi) licenses. How is this supposed to help passengers? Don’t be silly; it isn’t. It’s supposed to help the existing cartels. Passengers be damned.
Similarly, proposed new laws in London require a five-minute delay, insist that companies allow riders to pre-book up to seven days in advance, insist that companies have a fixed landline number(!) available for passengers to contact them at all times, and, like France, ban companies from showing cars available for immediate hire. Again, how is this good for riders? It isn’t. But who cares about the riders? It’s the status quo that matters.
“But that’s Europe,” you may say, “I’m American.” Then go read this great Buzzfeed piece about how the taxi cartels kept Uber out of Las Vegas for years, so that they could perpetuate their own abuses.
(Meanwhile, in my homeland, Toronto politely asked Uber to cease operations until the city figures out new rules. How Canadian! Needless to say Uber has not exactly rushed to accede to this request.)
Again, there are a whole laundry list of accurate and important criticisms one could aim at Uber. (In particular, their callous attitude towards the disabled. This appears to be improving a little, but it’s hard to believe that their heart, inasmuch as they have one, is really in it.) Again, I’ve done so myself. And again, I ride with Lyft.
But just because Uber’s evils are front, center, and spotlit, doesn’t mean that they are the worst of all possible alternatives. I still counsel to ride Lyft instead, when you can. But when your choice is between Uber and the local taxi cartels, please think at least twice, hard, about which is actually the lesser evil. The answer may not be as obvious as it seems.