The Larger Meaning of the Fight Over Uber


Buffalo – Niagara, one of the last Uber holdouts in the progressive nation;

By Jim Ostrowski;

You might think that the Western New York political class is embarrassed about being one of the few places on earth to make Uber-driving a crime.  You would be wrong.  These folks have no shame as they pay no actual price for their malefaction.  It has become an annual ritual in Buffalo wondering if the Bills will ever make the playoffs and Uber will ever be allowed to come here.  It has been pointed out that Buffalo is the only NFL city without Uber.  They shrugged it off.  Fortune did a story about Buffalo being one of five cities in the world without Uber: Barcelona, Buffalo, Buenos Aries, Vancouver and Frankfurt.  That didn’t convince them.  There has been a massive lobbying effort by powerful and wealthy multinational corporations.  So far, it has failed.  It may indeed pass this year in Albany but only after the political class extracts concessions that will make Uber more expensive and less functional here than elsewhere.  Again, they have no shame.

There is a proposal to impose a surcharge on each ride to subsidize mass transit.  This is classic.  That way, we can make a modern, digital, door-to-door efficient means of transportation subsidize a clumsy, cumbersome, inefficient and pre-digital form.  I’d love to know who thought that brilliant idea up. Let’s continue to subsidize an obsolete form of transportation that relies on 19th century technology, paper schedules, and makes you walk to their route, perhaps in a high-crime area, and freeze there until a mostly empty bus finally arrives.  That’s great for children, the elderly and the disabled.  Again, the political class has no shame.

Let’s dig deeper into this morass since, while it would be great to get Uber here, it’s more important to understand what this controversy tells us about the prevailing political regime in Buffalo and New York State.  What kind of system, staffed by what kind of people, backed by what kind of ideology can block consenting adults from using digital technology to engage in benign and mutually beneficial transactions?   It is critical to understand this as even if Uber is finally decriminalized in Buffalo, we will still be stuck with the same evil system blocking us each day from doing what we wish with what we own in every other aspect of life.  Let’s make this a teachable moment.

This is all spelled out in my books but I will provide a thumbnail sketch here.  There are two ways to make a living which the great sociologist Franz Oppenheimer called the “political means” and the “economic means.”  The economic means are production and voluntary exchange; the political means are coercive and predatory and involve seizing production and interfering with voluntary exchange.  To quote Oppenheimer:

“The State…is the organization of the political means…[which] stands as primarily a distributor of economic advantage, an arbiter of exploitation…an irresponsible and all‑powerful agency standing always ready to be put into use for the service of one set of economic interests as against another.

“The State is not…a social institution administered in an anti‑social way. It is an anti‑social institution…”

Murray Rothbard picked up on this insight and portrayed history as the race between the State, the organization of the political means and Society, the organization of voluntary economic means.

What is the Uber controversy then but merely the latest example of a battle between the State and Society with the State winning at the moment?  There, Uber and its drivers who seek to offer a voluntary and useful service are pitted against several groups seeking to use the force of the State to maintain or increase their income.  These groups include the Democratic Assemblymen currently blocking Uber.  They make money by staying in power using donations from special interest groups such as the taxi industry and trial lawyers who want to block Uber by lawful force as it might reduce their incomes.

How does the State maintain its power and win most of its battles with Society?  It needs an ideology to mask its true nature and bamboozle enough people to support the institution that plagues them on a daily basis through a myriad of taxes and regulations such as the ban on Uber.  For the last 100 years or so and currently, the State has benefited from an ideology that has penetrated into virtually every corner of American life including both political parties: progressivism.  In my book, I spend 200 pages dissecting the concept, including an eight-point checklist of its essential elements.  Suffice it here to say that progressive in this sense means “the strong presumption that democratic government intervention (force) will produce a better result than voluntary society.”

As I explain in the book, this concept is utter nonsense with no rational basis whatsoever, but it has gained an extremely seductive hold on the American public since it provides a prefabricated and instant solution to all of life’s numerous and intractable problems and, at zero cost too.  Santa comes every day in progressive-land, which is of course a fantasy land.

The progressive ideology, while sincerely held for the most part, is very useful for covering up a variety of often secretive and discrete private interests that use the vast state power rationalized by progressivism to advance their own selfish interests at the expense of everyone else.  Hence, the taxi industry in Buffalo is heavily lobbying against Uber because it might decrease their profits.  The fact that everyone else in Western New York would benefit does not faze them.  When you join or ally with the political class, to exploit the predatory means of acquiring wealth, you check your ethics at the door.

The Uber affair then is a small example of a much larger system that has existed for many decades and has kept Buffalo mired in stagnation and decline for about 55 years.  The Uber affair shows us several important and sad truths about the ruling political regime.

  1. It is a ruthless system based on advancing the interests of the political class at the expense of everyone else.
  2. It is virtually impervious to even small reforms even when they are supported by massive lobbying efforts and their goal is obviously meritorious such as bringing Uber to Buffalo.
  3. There is no organization able to battle the political class in Buffalo or Western New York.
  4. The ideology of progressivism, which empowers the political class, is held in some manner by the overwhelming majority of the public even if they might disagree on some details or outliers such as Uber coming to town.

The other day, I was called by a pro-Uber lobbying firm that asked if I would like to be connected to my Assembly member.  I said sure.  When I was connected, I explained to the staffer that I supported Uber and wondered if my representative agreed.  The staffer was bored and annoyed and never gave me a straight answer.  She promised to pass my concerns along but never even asked for my name!

What I gather from that call and from fighting the political class in this town for forty years is this: unless these hacks pay a personal price such as losing their jobs or their precious pensions or unless they are publicly called out, disgraced and humiliated, such as being banned from Bills’ games or eating at the local diner, they will continue to screw the community with a smile.


Jim Ostrowski is a trial and appellate lawyer in Buffalo, NY.  He is CEO of and author of several books including Progressivism:  A Primer on the Idea Destroying America.


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