Editorial note: Noah M. Horwitz has previously contracted work with the Clifford Group, a public relations firm that counts Yellow Cab among its clients. He currently does no work on behalf of them.
Serving on the Editorial Board of The Daily Texan, I have gotten the opportunity to sit down with a diverse set of stakeholders in community issues. This evening, I had a conversation with a few corporate representatives of Uber, who are trying desperately to pressure the Austin City Council into legalizing their service later this week. I don’t really want to get into the weeds of that issue right now, but what struck me as peculiar was their cognitive dissonance upon being confronted on operating illegally.
Uber and Lyft, app-based vehicle for hire services, routinely jump into new markets by cavalierly breaking the local laws until the municipal government agrees to legalize their courses of action. Once again, I don’t want to get into arguing why I think most all of the regulations currently governing taxis in most Texas cities are sound, or why the reforms Uber and Lyft are fighting toward are misguided. This is just about their strategy when entering a new marketplace. In Houston, they received some citations, but in Austin, they have racked up a lot of them and have even seen the impounding of many vehicles.
When I asked the Uber representatives about this, they confidently stated that they were not, in fact, breaking the law. The Austin Police Department begs to differ, but Uber’s response was that they had a different “interpretation” of the laws currently governing vehicles for hire. Of course, I know some people who have “different interpretations” of laws on cannabis and underage drinking, but it doesn’t ever seem to help them on the weekends.
Many reasonable proponents of Uber will concede that the service breaks the law, but that their lawbreaking is somehow justified by the fact that the laws are allegedly silly. Indubitably, the same thing can be said about our tax code, but the last time I checked, the IRS still does not take too kindly to tax evasion.
I will freely admit that I was radicalized on this issue when Uber and Lyft first began nonchalantly violating the law in Houston, last February. In May, they followed suit in Austin. Now, I grew up in a fairly secular household, and my father is a super old-school attorney, so I was raised with an almost spiritual reverence and respect for the law. I couldn’t ever justify taking either service in a city that is illegal in, and I really do not understand some of the people I know, who gloated about driving for the services on their social media accounts. Perhaps I’m a goody-two-shoe, but the casual attitude on breaking laws –especially local ones– is troubling. These were not imposed by some malevolent dictator in a faraway land, they were concurred to by rather pure representatives of the people not so long ago. Say what you will about the laws being obsolete or wrong, they still need to be respected until they are changed.
And if I hear one more self-righteous liberal gripe about “civil disobedience” or compare Uber and Lyft to players in the Civil Rights movement, I think I am going to lose it. Be it from Thoreau or Martin Luther King, there is a history in this country of violating unjust laws, but this is only in the rare exception of a statute that violates higher law, be that the Constitution or the inherent liberties of man. I don’t think you would find a single person who could say with a straight face that taxi regulations requiring 24/7 commercial insurance or prohibiting variable pricing violate either of these principles. This isn’t a moral struggle.
Personally, I’m offended by how few of my contemporaries are offended by Uber and Lyft’s cavalier lawbreaking. We have a social contract in this society, and that includes abiding by mutually-agreed upon laws.