Recently, I met a young man in Miami. Instead of taking a taxi I decided to try Uber for the first time. Rafael (not his real name) showed up a few minutes later. Traffic was bad in rush-hour Miami, and along the way we started chatting.
He was a Cuban, I learned, and until recently he had been a medical doctor in Cuba. He loved the work — the challenges and benevolence of medicine — and said that he was not a politics guy. But Cuban politics had an interest in him.
Under Cuba’s communist system, Rafael was a government employee and earned $20 per month as a young doctor. I asked him to repeat that, certain that something had been lost in translation. But, no, his salary actually was about $240 per year.
So, I asked, was that why he came to the United States, looking for the higher earnings he could get here as a doctor? Not quite, he replied. The decisive thing was learning that the Cuban government planned to send him to Venezuela. In exchange for oil, Cuba ships about 10,000 healthcare experts to Venezuela, where they are monitored and forced to work in often terrible conditions.
Rafael disliked the low wages, but he disliked even more becoming a slave.
So he decided to escape. He and fifteen others got into a boat and spent a week traveling southwest from Cuba across the Caribbean Sea 700 miles to Honduras. Rafael’s medical skills were useful along the way, though toward the end of the trip they had to tie a few of the people down in the boat to prevent them from falling or throwing themselves into the sea in their delirium. The sixteen arrived thirsty and hungry — but all alive (unlike some unfortunate attempts). Everyone then dispersed, and Rafael made his way to Miami, working any jobs he could.
A few short years later, he could afford a car. He started driving for Uber earlier this year and said that on a good day he can earn up to $300. That supports him and his new wife and their infant son, as well as helping out those family members still in Cuba to whom he sends money each month.
I asked him about his medical career. Will he become a doctor here in the USA? Too complicated, he said, as well as too expensive and too much time. Instead he is going to night school and training to become a registered nurse, which he expects to be able to do within two years.
Another immigrant success story. Except that politics again has an interest in Rafael.
As in many cities, Uber is controversial in Miami and may be shut down by the politicians. Uber is under attack elsewhere in Florida, in Nevada, New York, California, and France, where violent protests have erupted.
Huge amounts of money are at stake, as are fundamental political principles.
Currently, taxicabs are required by most local governments to have a license. Cities sell medallions to taxicab operators, which is a significant source of income for the cities. In return, the taxicabs are given various privileges such as protection from competition. In economics-speak, the taxi industry is a government-protected monopoly or cartel, depending on the city. In politics-speak, it is an example of public-private partnership, or “Third Way” politics, which tries to split the difference between free-market capitalism and socialism.
The money involved is astronomical, as the cost of medallions ranges from $270,000 in Chicago to about $400,000 in Miami to over $1,000,000 in New York City. There are over 13,600 taxis in NYC, as well as over 40,000 other licensed for-hire vehicles, so you can do the math.
Along come Uber and Lyft, which function as almost-pure free-market businesses. Private drivers are connected to private customers via the Uber or Lyft app on one’s phone. As customer, one can get a cost estimate before ordering. Once the app makes the connection, a picture of the driver and car appear, along with a map that tracks how close the car is to the customer and its estimated time of arrival.
I’ve now had four Uber experiences. All four vehicles were cleaner than the typical taxi. All arrived quickly (two arrived within a minute), the drivers were all cordial-to-friendly, and the cost of each trip averaged 40 percent less than a taxi.
So the taxi cartels are threatened, and they in turn are pressuring the politicians who sold them the expensive medallions. We’re losing money on our investment, they point out, as many customers prefer Uber. We had a deal that you’d protect our monopoly.
Further: government protection always comes with strings attached, and taxicabs are subject to all sorts of rules and oversight. So it’s not fair, the taxi companies complain, pointing out that Uber’s drivers are not subject to nearly as many regulations.
Of course, that’s like getting into bed with the government — and then complaining that others’ sex lives aren’t as controlled.
Which brings us to political principle. The fact that anybody is complaining about Uber and Lyft should make us angry. Who is to tell Rafael, my young Cuban driver, that he can’t earn $20 driving me to the airport? Who is to tell me that I’m not allowed to use Uber’s app to find other people willing to transport me?
Rafael is trying to make an honest living by providing a useful service. It’s his car, it’s my money, it’s my choice, and it’s his life. Why should any politico or taxi company have anything whatsoever to say in the matter? They shouldn’t.
Suppose that Rafael were my neighbor or just a friendly guy who offered to take me to the airport for free. We should be perfectly free to do so. Now suppose that I agree to give him $20 for doing so. Nothing in principle has changed — we’re both free agents working out a mutually-beneficial deal.
(I am a fan of Timothy Sandefur’s The Right to Make a Living, which argues this point in much fuller moral, political, and legal detail.)
My driver Rafael escaped from a Cuban government that stunts and destroys lives as a matter of political principle. And he made it to the United States of America, where he is working hard to make real the dream of a good life for himself and his family.
Uber’s opponents might want to limit Rafael’s options by making his livelihood illegal. But the rest of us can and should celebrate the innovative technologies that companies like Uber are creating — the convenience and cost-savings they are providing to customers — and the opportunities to make money they are providing to their many drivers.
And we can insist upon the moral principle: Free people can make their own decisions and their own deals. Turf-protecting politicians and crony businesses should back off.
[Related: The full archive of my articles in The Good Life series.]