Uber Alles

There are few things I enjoy more than the idiotic leftwing backlash against Uber. Besides revealing an utter lack of comprehension of market forces, those on a moral crusade against Uber are actually engaged in a transparent effort to carry water for cartels, aka the taxi unions. Because nothing says “progress” like championing the perpetuation of inefficient, corrupt, politically protected 19th century labor practices over spontaneous order and innovation.

Customers love Uber. Political hacks on the left hate it because it threatens unions and therefore threatens their donor base.

In Sydney last night, Uber’s decision to respond to spiking demand by quadrupling rates as a way to attract more drivers caused more hubbub on twitter than the actual hostage crisis. How dare that evil, greedy, private company raise its rates in the middle of a crisis? Well, if the intent was to incentive more Uber drivers onto the road to provide their in-demand service, what the hell is the problem? The problem apparently, is that profits are inherently evil, but especially so when sought amid a crisis. Mollie Hemingway corrals some representative tweets here and lobs justified scorn at the mob.

My favorite Uber anecdote is from this past summer, when European capitals saw coordinated protests against the disruptive taxi app by having all their taxi drivers block traffic at key arteries and walk out in solidarity, causing massive traffic jams. The result? Uber subscriptions skyrocketed 850% across the continent in a single day as many who had never heard of Uber were suddenly inclined to check them out. Talk about your all time backfires. Who among us would not leap at cheaper and more efficient modes of travel, especially when those already tasked with public transport merit such disdain for their petty and annoying protests, not to mention for their general performance?  As if the intent is to conform to stereotype, Paris taxi unions are back at it again today, blocking traffic and demanding an end to Uber while determined to learn nothing from their last failed protest. Hope it goes just as well as last time.

One would think the writing would be on the wall and the taxi union would understand that their days of holding a protected monopoly are over. Alas, the unions are doubling down and their allies in media are drooling for any story that can undermine Uber’s credibility. The constant harping on unfair pricing betrays a thorough ignorance of how markets work, though even more disturbing is the lack of imagination on display by these critics. In order to not only appreciate but celebrate the free market, one has to tap the frontier explorer mentality within, which will allow for the acceptance of “creative destruction.” Every innovation we love is born from this basic concept: existing products and services are displaced by new ones that invent better and cheaper ways to satisfy customers. This process requires businesses, jobs and brands to sometimes disappear. Executives and employees alike at firms such as Research in Motion (makers of Blackberry), Blockbuster, LaserDisc and the legacy music labels would undoubtedly have preferred to see their companies remain viable, but economics is like gravity – it is futile to fight. Now think of the firms that took their place: Apple, Netflix, BluRay and Spotify. In ten years, we may or may not still have these popular companies with us. The thing to do is accept reality and applaud the lower prices, better products and services and technological wonder at hand, while the thing one should not indulge is barking at the moon or vainly wielding one’s fist at the heavens because one is uncomfortable with the metaphysical reality that things always change. (Ironic that the vapid slogan “Change” deployed by Obama in ’08 should be so utterly lost on he and his followers when it comes to the constantly changing dynamics in the marketplace, otherwise known as “capitalism”). If you are in favor of change and progress, it makes no sense to stand opposed to innovative and disruptive new technologies just because they threaten old models which you favor and wish to see preserved.

By all accounts, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is kind of a jerk and has perhaps gone out of his way to stoke the ire of his antagonists. Frankly I could care less what the man’s personality is like or whether he encourages his employees to aggressively (but legally) recruit drivers away from competitors. Competition is not always polite and ethics are important to maintain even in a ruthlessly competitive and nascent market such as the booming sharing economy. But forgive me if I perceive every “Uber is shady” story as part of a broader unease with these carefree, ambitious and cocky tech titans who are supposedly planning to take over the world and turn it into Galt’s Gulch.

While it is surely not the driving motivation behind their attempt to discredit and ultimately destroy Uber, one factor must be that these champions of the uber-state and haters of anything that can reasonably be attributed to the philosophy of Ayn Rand are petrified of the growing “libertarian moment” and feel it is their moral obligation to stop it in its tracks. The level of Ayn Rand paranoia on the left is staggering. There are at least a dozen more influential philosophers and economists on the right than Rand, though she is unquestionably among the canonized thinkers for libertarians. As Robert Tracinski lays out in a wonderful piece, the one enduring lesson the left could learn from Ayn Rand is that “there are no evil thoughts except one: the refusal to think.” Rather than do the hard work of reading Hayek or Schumpeter, or even bother much to think, critics of free market economics lazily single out Rand as our one true prophet because she is easier to demagogue and her arguments easier to caricature. But I think the fundamental explanation for the left’s passionate assault on anything to do with free market economics or deregulation has to do with the libertarian moment coming directly on the heels of what was supposed to be the great progressive resurgence of 2008.

We are the ones we have been waiting for” was only six years ago but it feels a generation ago now. For all the starry-eyed millennials and social justice warriors and would-be authoritarians in cloistered academia, the rapid erosion of Hope and Change is surreal and responsible for massive whiplash. Beaten and bloodied and staring the demise of their movement in the face, progressives are behaving as any cornered animal would, by lashing out. “The Liberal Hour,” as the WSJ editorial page characterized the national mood in April of 2009, is no more. All that remains is an embittered hostility to actual, observable change.

 

Rand Paul’s Filibuster

One year ago today, Rand Paul captivated much of the country with his filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination to the CIA. The 13 hour marathon went spectacularly viral on social media and was responsible for CSPAN’s largest ratings in a while. By now very few Americans are unfamiliar with the Kentucky senator’s passionate rebuke of our clandestine drone program, and that is due to Paul’s political instinct for latching on to broad populist concerns that generally transcend partisan lines. Whether it’s reforming mandatory minimum sentencing, advocating government (state and federal) exit from marriage contracts, suing the NSA for domestic spying or championing drug war reform and felon voting rights, Paul has shown he is virtually peerless at applying his libertarian message to issues that garner broad support and thus enhance the appeal of libertarian ideas overall. Still, for all his policy entrepreneurship in just three years in the Senate, Paul is known most for his stance on drones.

As much as the filibuster was about drones, it was also about much more. It was about the wider War on Terror, as well as a plea for a restored reverence for the Bill of Rights, especially the fifth amendment. Most of all though, the filibuster was a disquisition on checks and balances and constitutional separation of powers. Rand used the hypothetical threat of an American being killed via drone strike on American soil without due process as a vivid entry point through which his audience could begin to appreciate the distorted power distribution within the branches of government.

Since Woodrow Wilson progressives have believed that government power should be concentrated in the executive branch and that the presidency demanded a “vision.” George Will describes the Wilsonian impulse as a desire for the president to interpret the constitution in a way that comports with the wishes and wants of the people and to be the voice that affirms these wants. Wilson’s view of the American founding and of separation of powers would become the legacy sentiment of the American left for a hundred years: not good enough. For Wilson and his ascendant progressive cohort, science was becoming the dominant and indisputable truth; bolstered by Darwin’s theory of evolution in biology, they set out to apply the science of evolution to human behavior. Wilson believed that government’s purpose was to efficiently guide humanity towards its inevitable endpoint of societal evolution. The perfect society would be attainable once the experts were put in charge. You know, top men

F.A. Hayek famously disparaged this inclination to impose scientific plans on a society the fatal conceit. The idea that you can acquire enough knowledge to plan an economy through the expertise of administrators is essentially the definition of hubris. That you would attempt such a project in a polity expressly founded in opposition to this conceit is nigh treasonous. And yet there was Woodrow Wilson, the first American president to directly challenge the very nature of our government’s structure and the idea that power should be diffuse and majorities neutered. Our Madisonian construct is meant to consist of constantly shifting majorities among competing segments of government, while factions are to be constrained by being discouraged on large scales, the idea being that the inevitable rise of small factions within civil society would harness productive resolutions among competing interests. Wilson and the progressives declared all this nonsense, said “Hail Science!” and went to work on a century long project to gradually erode checks and balances by growing the executive to a scale fit to house a legion of expert administrators, aka “unelected bureaucrats.”

This was the subversive message of Rand Paul’s filibuster. The crucial issue he really meant to highlight was embedded inside his bombastic portrayal of an immediate threat to our natural rights posed by drones. That is not to say that Paul was not sincere about his clarion call for reform to both overseas and domestic drone protocols. Rand is nothing if not a rabid defender of all of the Bill of Rights, and his alarm at the vague guidelines, oversight and legality of the government’s drone program was about protecting various parts of our fourth, fifth and sixth amendment rights. More than anything to do with drones though, the crux of the filibuster was about drawing attention to the bipartisan abuse of executive power.

Paul is fond of quoting Montesquieu (really, who isn’t?), the French political philosopher whose principal contribution to politics was the idea of separation of powers. A merger between executive and legislative branches would mean no liberty, according to Montesquieu’s revolutionary tripartite concept under which our government was conceived. Likewise, as Paul offered repeatedly throughout his filibuster, a combination of the executive and the judiciary can yield no justice. Paul was rightly tying the concern over due process and extrajudicial assassinations to the broader discussion of an overreaching executive. The presidency has simply become too big, with too many agencies and bureaucracies under its aegis. Congress has gradually and steadily forfeited much of its authority to the executive on everything from war powers to educational administration (as if that should be a role of the federal government at all). I believe Rand Paul was sincere when he said he would have stood and raised the same objections regardless of who was occupying the White House. This was not a partisan attack on Barack Obama, but a larger critique of the subtle degradation to our constitutional prerogative to live under three coequal branches of government.

Before Wilson, Congress had far more authority than it enjoys today and the roles of the branches were unambiguous: the legislature writes the laws, the executive branch executes the laws, and the judicial branch determines the constitutionality of the laws. But with the rise of our imperial presidency – brought to you unapologetically and enthusiastically by progressives and their presidential “visionaries” – the executive branch has become Leviathan, buttressed by unaccountable battalions of expertise known as executive agencies, able to cast the tentacled nets of the administrative state across the land, unimpeded and with little input from the other branches. Our government as currently construed is not very far from completing the progressive vision of having a benign dictator administer an expert plan for the country. As the executive branch grows and grows, and with it the number of petty authoritarians manning the cubicles at EPA, IRS, DOE, HHS, and wherever else the executive agencies have usurped power, the ability of Congress and the Supreme Court to effectively check its authority diminishes. We know who is responsible for this. Paul’s meta-narrative was not to affix blame for the bloated, corrupt, too-powerful presidency, but to cast a bright shining light on it and to spend thirteen hours subtly lamenting the fact that not enough Americans in the 21st century seem to care that government today is not functioning as it was designed.

And what better way to jar Americans out of complacency than to warn them that an unchecked executive might drop a drone through their roof. That was the real point of the filibuster, to wake Americans up to the perils of absolute power.