Dear Progressives: Using Uber Doesn’t Make You a Monster

If you’re concerned about exploitation and human well being you should embrace markets and competition with glee, not guilt.

May 24, 2016 • Commentary
This article appeared on Forbes​.com on May 24, 2016.

Over the weekend John Paul Brammer took to the pages of The Guardian’s “Comment is Free” section to lament the supposed hypocrisy displayed by young progressives participating in the sharing economy, who he thinks have demonstrated a preference for convenience over ethics. Brammer admits that he’s among the hypocrites. In fact, he wrote the article just before heading off to an apartment in Puerto Rico he found via Airbnb. I hope that Brammer won’t allow his self‐​diagnosed hypocrisy to ruin his vacation and that progressives don’t feel guilty when they take part in the sharing economy. If you’re concerned about exploitation and human well being you should embrace markets and competition with glee, not guilt.

The progressive hypocrisy Brammer identifies can apparently be found lurking in the findings of a recent Pew survey, which found that almost 60 percent of rideshare users who are aware of the rideshare vs. taxi regulation debate think companies such as Uber and Lyft shouldn’t be governed by the same regulations that affect taxis. The same survey also found that rideshare users are roughly twice as likely to be Democrats than Republicans and that 28 percent of 18–28 year olds in the U.S. have used a rideshare app. As won’t come as a surprise, it also turns out that most rideshare users live in urban areas.

Pew’s findings were written up in another Guardian article titled, “Left‐​leaning users veer right on regulating Uber and Airbnb, study finds,” a headline that reminded me of Robert Conquest’s First Law of Politics: “Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.”

According to Brammer, the young, liberal, urbanites identified by Pew are taking part in a “new economy, where convenience is king.” But convenience has always played a major role in economies. Sure, Uber and Airbnb make travel and accommodation easier, but so did the Internet and the telephone, two technologies that hardly turned us into ethical monsters. Convenience might not be front‐​and‐​center of consumers’ minds all the time, but readers should ask themselves if they have ever deliberately chosen a less convenient product over a more convenient one. When I find a cafe offering to sell me a coffee for a price I find agreeable I don’t walk past in search of another cafe offering me the same product. Also, cafes compete with one another to make themselves more convenient for me and other coffee drinkers.

It’s not a surprise that many people choose to use a convenient app rather than gesticulate wildly on the side of the street like a lunatic. Unsurprisingly, consumers like to see reductions in transaction costs. Without Uber and Airbnb it’s extremely time consuming to find a person in a strange city who has a seat in their car or a spare bedroom.

Does this convenience come at the expense of exploitation? After all rideshare drivers, who are considered independent contractors, are not governed by minimum wage legislation and don’t enjoy the same protections offered to traditional full‐​time employees.

However, it’s important to remember that the flexibility rideshare companies offer drivers is one of their main attractions. A survey announced by Uber last year found that the majority of Uber drivers use the service to supplement income, and that 91 percent of Uber drivers were “satisfied with ability to balance their work with Uber and the rest of their life.”

Princeton Economist Alan Krueger, who took a look at Uber driver data, found that in October, 2014 51 percent of UberX and UberBlack drivers in some some of America’s most populous cities worked fewer than 15 hours per week. Krueger’s paper did not include data on miles driven, which is significant given that UberX drivers have to pay for gas and vehicle maintenance. Also, you might understandably be suspect of a survey announced on Uber’s website.

Yet an informal 2016 poll of rideshare drivers who read The Rideshare Guy blog found that more than half (55.8 percent) of drivers list flexibility as “the most important thing to you as an on demand worker.” The same poll showed that almost half of Uber drivers somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement “Overall, I am satisfied with my experience driving for Uber,” compared to 38 percent of respondents who somewhat or strongly disagreed.

These unsatisfied rideshare drivers are hardly in the same category as the sweatshop workers Brammer mentions later in his article. As unpleasant as sweatshops are, they oftentimes offer wages that are hundreds of percent higher than the average national income of the country where they’re located.

Brammer writes that if progressivism demanded ideological purity he would “abscond to a yurt in nature, grow my own crops, make my own clothes, and never list that yurt on Airbnb as a romantic getaway in the woods.” It’s a good thing Brammer isn’t doing that. If widely adopted such a move wouldn’t help sweatshop workers, some of whom would be laid off thanks to the fall in demand for their goods. Many of these unemployed workers would have to turn to one of the many common and undesirable alternatives to sweatshops such as begging, subsistence farming, and prostitution.

You’re not, despite what Brammer writes, a “monster” if you use a convenient app like Uber. Rather, you’re taking part in a voluntary transaction made possible by technological feats that exist thanks to the kind of innovation promoted by markets. Ridesharing drivers who feel exploited are welcome to leave ridesharing platforms. Yet, many rideshare drivers value their flexibility, which would be limited if they were considered traditional employees. I hope Brammer enjoys his vacation in Puerto Rico. If he wants to check out what life in a yurt would feel like he can easily find one, thanks to Airbnb.

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