Friday, June 20, 2014

Of the Rhetoric of Disruption

A lengthy lament by Alex Payne, ostensibly aimed at Marc Andreessen, has been making the rounds. It's a good example of how rhetoric both reflects and attempts to sway the moral sentiments. viz. [links omitted]
We could go back and forth all day on what exactly defines technological change – I certainly have before. But what labor wants is self-determination, not a slowing of technological change. Taxi drivers protesting Uber aren’t saying that they want apps out of their cabs. They want leverage to negotiate wages and working conditions so they aren’t barely scraping by. The pushback is on exploitative business models, not technology.
Indulge me if you will, a bit of if-by-whiskeyism of my own here.

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about Uber. All right, here is how I feel about Uber:

If when you say Uber you mean the price gouger, the unregulated scourge, the bloody monster, that displaces divers, undercuts unions, flaunts licensing requirements, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil livery service that dares charge extra in the midst of a snowstorm when riders are at their most desperate, bilking passengers for more than the value of a ride while robbing honest drivers from an honest living at a fair wage, then certainly I am against it.

But, if when you say Uber you mean the convenience of being able to catch a ride when none other would be available at any price, the transparent two-way rating system, the app that is accessed when the yellow cab is delayed, that overcomes the transitional gains trap of long-capitalized barriers to entry, and connects drivers with passengers without paying tribute to rent-soaking third parties; if you mean freedom of association; if you mean the right of the sovereign individual to peaceably conduct contract arrangements on mutually agreeable terms; if you mean the service which enables a man to move swiftly and comfortably through an alien city-scape, and in his own home town to have the freedom to help others in kind, and to forget, if only for a little while, the great tragedies brought when men of business meet with their own interests well above those of the common man; if you mean that app, the use of which frees untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.

This is my taxi stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.

Negotiating tradeoffs is hard. It's made much easier when we remember that the economic puzzle isn't how to maximize the welfare of one class of people (particularly at the expense of another), but to discover those technologies and institutions that better permit people to engage in mutually beneficial, peaceful, consensual production and exchange. The economic puzzle is how to maximize cooperation. I think Andreessen understands that. I'm not sure Mr. Payne does. It is my hope that my readers do. Good luck, and ride responsibly.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?