Last week the Republican Party began circulating a petition in support of “innovative companies like Uber,” exhorting the faithful to sign up to “stand up for our free market principles, entrepreneurial spirit and economic freedom” against “taxi unions and liberal government bureaucrats” who are “setting up roadblocks, issuing strangling regulations and implementing unnecessary red tape to block Uber from doing business in their cities.”
The circulation of the petition, which looks very much like an attempt to build email lists for future fundraising solicitations, was reported on by the Hill Thursday and snarked upon by Alex Wilhelm of TechCrunch. The latter was unimpressed.
The GOP is cool, guys, and they want you to know it.
Wilhelm’s dismissiveness notwithstanding, Uber—and companies who similarly use technology to upend the increasingly-obsolete regulatory state—should be in the GOP’s wheelhouse. Particularly at the local and state level, the onset of the Information Age has brought with it a new understanding of consumer protection and the need for regulation, and that understanding is far more in line with small-government conservatism than the nanny state.
Uber, for the uninitiated, is a car service dependent on a mobile app functioning in dozens of cities across the globe. To use it consumers need only download the Uber app and input their credit card information once. Once that’s done, when a ride is needed in an Uber market one can access the app on a smartphone, choose from available drivers the app identifies through GPS, and book a ride on the spot. Uber is a bit pricier than old-fashioned taxi service (though UberX, an expanded offering using drivers’ personal cars, bridges that gap), but customers rave about the increase in quality and convenience it offers. “Uber is software that eats taxis,” says the investor software pioneer Mark Andreesen, who has expressed interest in investing in the company. “It’s a killer experience. You watch the car on the map on your phone as it makes its way to you.”
Naturally, a company which uses a mobile app to replace the cumbersome and obsolete system of telephone dispatch the taxi industry uses would be to that industry what Ford Motor Company was to the wagon industry. What’s more, Uber riders are able to provide feedback using their smartphones in order to rate the driver after each ride—which brings the power of online reputation to the service equation.
How can the taxi industry compete with Uber? Simple: use political power to destroy it, and its competitors in the rideshare market, most notably Lyft and Sidecar, before it can to do taxis what Henry Ford did to the wagon makers. And that’s what has happened in cities like Chicago, New Orleans, Miami, Boston and Pittsburgh, plus states like Virginia, where taxi unions and “connected” taxi industry incumbents have used their influence with local Democratic machines and their captive bureaucrats to throw obstacle after obstacle in the rideshares’ paths.
The real story behind all this bureaucratic legerdemain is politics, of course. An obnoxious taxi commission which drives up the cost of entry into the car-for-hire business to such an extent that only long-term incumbents are left will inevitably create a set of circumstances advantageous for everyone but the consumer. The politicians can extort campaign contributions and bribes from participants in the industry for the privilege of doing business in that jurisdiction, the bureaucrats serve as enforcers for the racket, the incumbents are satisfied in buying their way out of any real consumer protection while the racket prevents competition from disrupting the system, the unions serve as political muscle for a price… and the consumer, over time, gets used to being screwed.
To paraphrase Bill Whittle, when you can order steel from China on a smart phone, how are you going to be satisfied with an hour-long wait at the DMV? When you can binge-watch a whole season of Mad Men on your TV or tablet, are you going to find it acceptable to wait for the government to send you a permit in the mail?
The answer is easy. You aren’t. We know this already; it’s reflected in the polls which show public disgust for all levels of government at an all-time high—and what’s more, trust in government is markedly worse in reliably Democratic states.
Which means the GOP could well be onto something by embracing Uber. But the embrace must go beyond fundraising. Republicans should start by explaining a few things to the public. First, that Uber is an example of private-sector technology and innovation creating standards that government as currently constituted can’t match. Second, that while conventional wisdom has it that the public wants or at least needs big government, what the public actually wants are the services associated with big government to be available, albeit from the Ubers or Prosper.coms of the world. Third, the GOP is committed to clearing the field for that transformation to occur in health care, retirement and savings, education, the first-class mail, the welfare state, environmental protection.
But just saying you’re committed to an Uber-age model of governance isn’t enough. That commitment must be demonstrable. Where Republicans control local governments, the public needs to see major change, whether it’s a deregulated, rideshare-friendly taxi market or satellite DMV and social services offices in all the Wal-Marts and CVS stores, or the removal of licensure requirements for practically everything covered by Angie’s List so that online reputation, which the public actually respects, takes the place of the Byzantine regulatory maze as a protector of the consumer.
But when you’re stopping people from doing business as a florist or interior decorator without a license in red states just as Democrats are doing in blue states, nobody is interested in hearing about how supportive of Uber you are. This is a walk worth walking, and Republicans should learn the steps rather than the cold-call script.