Ever since Lawrence Reed started writing about the relationship between liberty and personal character, I’ve been seeing examples all around me.
You can’t choose your height or race or many other physical traits, but you fine tune your character every time you decide right from wrong and what you personally are going to do about it. Your character is further defined by how you choose to interact with others and the standards of speech and conduct you practice.
A good case concerns automotive transportation in cities. After years of coming to expect rudeness and disregard from cab drivers, the rise of peer-to-peer ridesharing has changed my expectations.
With Uber, I’m often impressed at how kind and helpful the drivers are to passengers like me. They want to serve my needs. They give me a bottle of water, help me around the city, provide pleasant conversations, keep their cars clean, and so on. To put it simply, they are more decent to me and other passengers.
It’s such a wonderful surprise, and relief! Who knew that hailing a taxi could be such a wonderful experience of human contact and cooperation? Who knew what we were missing all along? It’s beautiful to see how a drop of liberty can so dramatically improve life.
It’s not because Uber drivers are more morally upstanding than regular cabbies. It is because they are accountable for the service they provide. It is market competition that makes it work.
They know that bad service will cause me, the customer, to give them a lower rating. What they want is repeat business, and the best way to gain that is by being an exceptional service provider. In other words, they want me to like them. As Reed says, competition is striving for excellence in the service of others.
But here’s where it gets interesting. Not many people know that the customers are rated too. Every time I take an Uber, the driver is asked whether I was a good passenger. I’m rated 1 to 5 stars. If my rating sinks, it is very possible that I will lose access to rides. It’s all up to the driver; he or she can accept or reject my request. This incentivizes me to be on my best behavior, to be the best customer I can be.
Compare this system to traditional cab service. There is something of a tradition of young people being wicked to cabbies. Out late, drinking too much, it’s common for people to get into the cab and harass and tease the driver — not necessarily cruelly, but with obvious disregard for normal manners and decency. I’m guessing that the reader has seen or experienced this, so there is no reason to elaborate.
The reason for this bad behavior? Cabbies are required by law to pick people up. They have no choice. Consumers do not have a choice to ride anything but municipal services. They have no choice. Neither the cabby nor the consumer has an investment in making the ride a good experience. Because the accountability is drained from the relationship, it becomes a pure exchange of cash without that necessary personal, human component.
Is it any wonder that too many cab rides are an exercise in mutual rudeness? They put poor personal character on display.
This cannot happen on Uber without some consequence. If you speak abusively to the driver of an Uber, he will record it, and this will be taken into consideration the next time you push the button on your app to call a car. You will probably start having longer waits; if you do this consistently, you will not be picked up at all. It’s called responsibility, or being answerable for your actions.
Recently, I needed to call an Uber for myself and a group of other people. When the driver arrived, lots of people who had been drinking too much piled in, without knowledge that this was not a normal cab service. I watched from the backseat as they engaged in the antics people often pull in the cars of municipal services.
Of course, I was mortified, and I quickly explained to them the stakes, that I would be held accountable for their actions and that how they behaved would reflect on my own standing as a passenger. They were stunned to hear this and apologized profusely and quickly volunteered to add to the tip. For my own part, I make special efforts to smooth things over with the driver in order to maintain my rating.
I left that experience with a profound realization: Even the smallest changes in institutional conditions can fundamentally alter our behavior and the personal character that behavior puts on display. The difference between a municipal service without stakeholders and competition, as versus a private service in a competitive market, can turn bad behavior into good, even turn what seems like an intractable jungle into a charming tea party of mutual respect.
Does this matter? It absolutely does. Private enterprise in a competitive market humanizes our relationships and makes us accountable for how we treat others. When you compromise these institutions even slightly, adding that element of force that comes with monopolization or other forms of government control, you take a step away from making economic relationships genuine human relationships. It coarsens the culture, depreciates evolved norms of social engagement, and disincentivizes all of us to treat each other as valuable.
The reductio of this principle can be seen in line at airport security, at the post office, or the driver’s license bureau, or even dealing with revenue agents or police. The further we move from free market-based relationships toward relationships created by force and coercion, the less civilized the world becomes, and the less personal character is on display. The less we treat each other with dignity.
A society of unencumbered laissez faire is also one of unending personal accountability. It means, at the very least, that we are rewarded for good character and discouraged from abusing the courtesies of others. Free markets mean doing to others what would have them do to us.