Uber: Spontaneous Ordure

Over at Reason, Nick Gillespie defends the Hayekian “spontaneous order” idea from Damon Linker thusly:

An obvious example of spontaneous order from the contemporary moment isn’t Iraq or Libya but something like the way Uber operates vis a vis traditional taxi cartels.

I happen to be with Gillespie versus Linker, but I think the idea of Uber as “spontaneous order” is, well, off. In actuality, Uber is an attempt to capture/enclose an already existing spontaneous order that’s been around forever but is finally organizing itself in a capturable/encloseable way.

In the beginning (at least since there have been automobiles, and presumably since there have been coaches) were the jitneys and the gypsy cabs and the mutual acquaintance car pools. They operated beyond the regulatory pale for the most part, but they couldn’t really be done on much of a mass scale.

Then came the Internet and, more slowly than we might have expected but still pretty fast, up went the first primitive mutual discovery systems: Bulletin boards and other fora dedicated to, or with threads for, ride-sharing and car-pooling. These started mostly among students wanting to make it back and forth home for the holidays and so forth and looking for other students from the same area and going to school in the same distant area, and among workers in particular metros who maybe wanted to carpool from the suburbs to an urban edge where they could catch the train on in to work.

Then the more advanced stuff (cell phone apps, etc. to make mutual discovery quicker and easier) became feasible. Uber and Lyft saw that the big money was, in the short term, adapting those methods to the state-approved revenue model (patent the methods, trademark the brands, get government regulators to write a hall pass for you and lock down your potential competitors) as a way of enclosing them and charging rent on them.

Which, to be honest, seems like a natural impulse, just like a worker with some particular skill might decide that his bread is buttered on the side of putting on a tie and jacket and interviewing for a wage position doing Thing X rather than hanging out his shingle as a freelance provider of Thing X.

But that doesn’t make it a good thing. The real future of the spontaneous ride-sharing order isn’t with Uber et al. It’s with the open source apps that let people car-pool, ride-share and cab-hire without passing through some proprietary toll booth.

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