Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015
by Scott McPherson
When a gang wants to stifle a competitor, they bring in a “heavy” to rough up the offending party. Portsmouth’s taxi monopolists brought in the local government for their dirty work. It’s the same shakedown, but the gang sits under a big fancy seal of incorporation, and the heavies wear badges and uniforms.
Almost four centuries ago, an English parliament brought to the sovereign’s attention the terrible damage caused by granting monopolies. These were not positions of dominance won in a competitive marketplace; they were legal prohibitions against competition – serious barriers to entry that came with the power to tax, fine, intimidate, and destroy anyone who dared touch upon the sanctity of the chosen party’s profits. Commerce was wrecked, and the elite few were enriched at the expense of the many.
Elizabeth I was a terrible abuser of the system, while her successor, James I, acted with a bit more restraint. To provide redress, a parliament called in 1624 passed the Statute of Monopolies, which affirmed, according to David Hume’s wonderful History of England, that monopolies are “contrary to law and to the known liberties of the people. It was there supposed, that every subject of England had entire power to dispose of his own actions, provided he did no injury to any of his fellow-subjects.” (Volume V, page 114)
We are each free to pursue our own happiness, so long as we do not infringe on the equal right of others to pursue theirs. Government’s role is to make sure this principle is upheld, but otherwise to stay the hell out of the way. What a wonderfully libertarian idea!
Too libertarian for the Portsmouth City Council, which told a local Uber driver, Christopher David, that in order to engage in his chosen commercial activity, he had to submit to a criminal background check and obtain commercial insurance – barriers to entry – as required by the city’s recent transportation ordinance, which was passed specifically to drive (pardon the pun) Uber out of town. Never mind that David’s customers just want a cheap, dependable ride to work or home, and rely on their own judgment of his character. Never mind that, thanks to the city-protected monopoly, taxis are more expensive than they would be in a truly competitive environment, and often damn hard to come by.
Freedom of commerce, people exercising their own judgment – in the People’s Republic of Portsmouth? We can’t have that!
David decided to make an issue of the matter, and deemed his defiance an act of “civil disobedience.” He encouraged people to boycott local taxi services and instead embrace his message of “Drive Free or Die.” The Portsmouth Police have continually warned him away from town, but he has kept at it. “I fully anticipate being targeted,” he told the local statist rag a couple of months ago. “Whatever punishments are levied against me, I am going to fight as much as I can. I think it’s important that this gets stopped here, or it will spread to other cities.”
Working hand in glove with local officials, the taxi monopolists have united, vowing “to monitor the local Uber app and to take photos and drop dimes whenever they see Uber drivers working in Portsmouth.” “All the taxi companies will be writing down license plates and we expect the Police Department to enforce” the new [transportation] ordinance, Great Bay Taxi owner John Palreiro said. “If the Police Department doesn’t enforce this, I’ll go ballistic.” Interestingly, Palreiro was whining just two years ago that he was being unfairly excluded from the racket. Now comfortably ensconced in the system, he provides a perfect example of what economists call “regulatory capture” – the tendency of those who are micro-managed by the system to make it work for them, to the detriment of others.
But they couldn’t shut David down. He just kept on a-drivin’.
So the heavies were brought in.
Stopping to pick up a fare recently outside the Daniel Street Tavern, David was confronted by that establishment’s doorman/bouncer, who told him that he was in violation of the city’s anti-Uber ordinance. David thanked the man for the information, but seconds later he alerted police to David’s presence. A warning was issued, and David went on about his business – after an amusing and instructive expletive-laden rant from his customer was directed against the local taxi services. The entire event can be heard here.
And there was born the city government’s latest charade. The tavern doorman/bouncer learned that the video was up on YouTube, and complained to police that it was made without his permission. In New Hampshire, it is perfectly legal to record public officials, such as police officers, without their consent. But recording an “unknowing private individual” is a felony violation of state law. David has been arrested and charged with “wiretapping.”
It’s hard to imagine them making this stick. The doorman/bouncer was outside, in public, talking to someone on a public street. How anyone under these circumstances could have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” is difficult to comprehend.
It has been suggested that this individual is a taxi operator himself, or perhaps receives “kickbacks” from taxi operators in exchange for ratting out Uber drivers. If – emphasis on if – either or both claims are true, we see yet again the way in which interested private parties collude with government to enrich themselves by screwing over consumers and competitors. It’s just such cronyism that makes the taxi monopoly so despicable – and Uber so damn popular.
The wiretapping charge is really about the City of Portsmouth taking some rope that David unwittingly offered them, and trying to hang him with it. Regardless of the final outcome of that charge, David’s life and livelihood will be seriously disrupted for some time to come, and in the future, individuals hoping to have a record of controversial events will think twice before recording. Other Uber drivers who do not wish to comply with the city transportation ordinance are also on notice: Whatever it takes to get you, no low is too low.
David could definitely have done some things differently. He could have stayed below the radar, doing his job and avoiding places where those hostile to his chosen employer might interfere. He didn’t have to thumb his nose at the City government and broadcast it all over the Internet either. It would only have taken a moment to tell his antagonist at the Daniel Street Tavern that he was recording their interaction, if for no other reason than to protect himself. Finally, his rather mercurial response to the arrest warrant (see here) makes him look a bit silly. One gets the impression that his next act will be to try and hold his breath until the evil state collapses.
David might be wrongheaded, but he’s not wrong. His stand is a just one. Portsmouth’s government, and the taxi monopoly it is protecting, has no business interfering with voluntary transactions between willing sellers and buyers, for the sake of enriching some at the expense of everyone else. With a record number of Americans desperate for work, a compassionate government would be inclined to embrace every peaceful means of employment that a citizen might find. Leave the man alone.