Taxi drivers protest Uber, progress

June 16, 2014 | By JONATHAN WOOD

In the last month, taxi drivers around the world have shut down city streets to protest against competition from Uber.* Traffic in major European cities ground to a halt last week. This followed in the wake of a similar demonstration in Boston last month. The taxi drivers’ objections are as predictable as they are unfounded: competition from Uber is “unfair” and the drivers are dangerous since the government doesn’t pre-approve them. Protestors in L.A. asserted that Uber is a threat to riders:

“I would ask my daughter not to ride in an Uber car because, in my opinion, they are unsafe,” Koretz told CBS Los Angeles. “We’ve seen incidents where Uber riders right here in Los Angeles, as well as all around the nation, have been endangered. Without regulation, these ride-sharing services should not be allowed to operate on our streets.”

Of course, Uber drivers get in car accidents. And sometimes, even more tragic things happen. But the number of grotesque crimes committed in cabs shows that government regulation wouldn’t prevent these incidents.

If anything, Uber is safer than taxis. Cab rides are essentially anonymous. You can’t investigate your driver before climbing into his car and you can’t realistically sanction him after you climb out. Since Uber knows exactly which driver provides each ride, and allows customers to rate and review them, it can respond quickly to inappropriate behavior. It’s pretty clear that “safety” has nothing to do with the protests.

That just leaves the “unfair” competition allegation. Being a nerd, the protests immediately made me think of Bastiat‘s “Candlestick maker petition.” In that satire, Bastiat imagines candlestick makers petitioning the government to block out the sun, claiming that its free light unfairly competes with them. Bastiat was demonstrating the absurdity of rejecting the benefits of trade in order to benefit special interests.

It is equally absurd to reject the benefits of technology. Yet Luddites have repeatedly sought to do so. In the case of Uber, technology has allowed private car services and individual drivers to offer rides to smart phone users more easily and cheaply than ever before. Naturally, this shakes up the market. But that’s a feature not a bug.

*Disclaimer: the author is a regular user of Lyft, a rival of Uber.