Alberto Mingardi  

Shall we obey unjust regulations?

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"One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws," so goes the old, venerable quote by Martin Luther King. But what about unjust regulations? Typically businesses play by the rules. Some of them play with the rules, by engaging in the political process.
At least in Europe, Uber is following a different strategy. I've blogged before on the ban on Uber services in Brussels and Berlin. The logic behind the ban is consistent with the principles inspiring taxi regulations almost everywhere. But Uber isn't backing down. Rather the opposite.
In Milan, the company just announced a new service - "UberPOP", which mimics what Americans call "UberX". So, the Uber platform will be opened not just to professional "black car" drivers, but to virtually anyone who owns a car and wants to drive for a buck. Very cleverly, Uber is marketing it as a "car sharing with a driver". It also argues that prices will amount basically to a reimbursement for expenses, and they'll be calculated over a rate table calculated by the Italian automobile club. These are the rates typically used to reimburse people over travel expenses.
Of course, local authorities in Milan are already reacting by threatening to fine drivers that dare to enroll in "UberPOP", coming thus to the rescue of cab drivers. Cab drivers (in this joined by "black car" drivers) understandably dislike the emergence of competition, but they would also argue that, regardless of the justification provided, this move on the part of Uber goes against the law. After all, a legal monopoly is such precisely because it is legal.
Now, personally I'd consider "UberX" a very positive development for a variety of reasons. If I have a legitimate property right to my car, I suppose this should include the right to use it for commercial purposes (perhaps sticking advertisements on the sides or occasionally driving for a buck).
"UberX" basically makes possible transactions that wouldn't occur otherwise, connecting potential suppliers of car rides with those that may demand such services. I'd argue that, particularly for a country which has been in a recession for the last eight years like Italy, it is only good that more exchanges and more transactions can happen.
But what if the city government, or perhaps a court, proves eventually that it is indeed illegal under the rules currently in force?
One way would be to urge politicians to change the law, so that Uber's undertaking could be indisputably legal. This means Uber should resort to the political process, where however I am afraid the taxi drivers will have more clout.
Another way would be to argue that, as people should resist unjust norms, so they should resist unjust regulations. I would personally be inclined towards this argument, but I see it has problems. One thing is to tell people they should disobey norms that impinge upon their individuals rights, resist censorship or legal discrimination. But here we are dealing with a self-interested corporation, that succeeds or fails in business precisely because those unjust norms are upheld or disobeyed. Is the profit motive, here, affecting the validity of the idea unjust norms should be disobeyed?
So, I would be grateful for your view. Let's imagine that UberX makes its way to Italy, but at some point it is deemed illegal. What shall a libertarian argue then?

P.S: I vividly remember reading David Friedman's "The Machinery of Freedom", which is the book that turned me into a maniacal libertarian, and stumbling upon his idea of "jitney service" and found it brilliant. As he himself pointed out in a post a while ago, that is basically UberX. This is an interesting case of a libertarian idea that was realised by free enterprise. We love free enterprise, sometimes she reciprocates.


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Effem writes:

And who exactly decides what is "unjust?" What are the criteria?

Be careful. Can you urge someone to resist an unjust regulation without breaking some other government law? I am not sure. I believe it would depend upon circumstances, but I am not a lawyer. I would not proceed without careful calculation.

But I do suggest rhetorical resistance: Do not cede the unmodified label of "law" to government law. When you call something "law" it sounds good, perhaps, whether it is actually good or evil. Always call it "government law" as I did in the second sentence above. Or call it "edict" or "decree". Dress it down with the normative connotation of your label.

Be ready to point out:

  • There are sources of law outside the government, such as customary law, the law merchant, the ten commandments, the law of your conscience, and the law of gravity.
  • Government law sometimes violates these other kinds of law.
  • Government law can be evil, such as the government laws which Martin Luther King Jr. purposely confronted.

dullgeek writes:

But here we are dealing with a self-interested corporation, that succeeds or fails in business precisely because those unjust norms are upheld or disobeyed. Is the profit motive, here, affecting the validity of the idea unjust norms should be disobeyed?

I don't think so. To the extent that Uber is externalizing regulatory compliance costs to it's drivers, and the drivers accept this risk, then what we have here is a private contract. Into which none of us should be interposing ourselves - even if we believe that the drivers are ignorantly taking on too much risk.

Tony writes:

For the love of all that is holy, would some please show Alberto how to format a blog post properly. The lack of line breaks makes them rather unpleasant to read!

Ruy Diaz writes:

Well, yes. Disobey is the way to go. Just like black market providers that break price control laws are not 'profiteers' or 'leeches'. (They tend to be unsavory people because those kinds of people already have a history of breaking the law.)

Julien Couvreur writes:

I don't think the profit motive of a corporation should be relevant to the question (whether to obey or resist). Every single human action is profit-motivated in the broad sense (including psychic profits). Why single out monetary profits?

That said the motives of people making arguments regarding a law being just or unjust could be relevant in your figuring out if it is truly just or unjust. But it should not matter for your resistance once you determined it's unjust.

Arthur_500 writes:

Please remember that Henry Thoreau went to prison. civil disobedience is one way to encourage others to change a law you do not like. However, there will be a price to pay.
Napster fought for their belief that free music was just fine and lost. Why should a cab company be any different?
Education is difficult and expensive. However, if they are able to let people understand that the cab regulations may be foolish then they could garner public support.
On the other hand, If I had to invest in a safe vehicle and insurance I would object to some joker driving his Yugo and getting my fare. Ergo, fairness is in the eyes of the beholder.

Mark V Anderson writes:

OF course unjust regulations should be resisted. How could anyone argue otherwise? Well, maybe it depends on definition of "resisted." I never follow a law (or reg) if I can get away with not doing so and I don't believe the law makes sense (at least in the context I am operating in). I wish everyone else did the same. This doesn't mean violent resistance, because violence is wrong, but resistance in the sense of not following the law if possible.

It is illegal to cross a street against a red light even if there is no car within a mile. The law itself even makes sense usually, but not in this case. There are also times when the law never makes sense. I used to partake in illegal drugs with no concern at all that it was against the law. I don't now only because I have more to lose if I get caught. Well, intoxicants also have less interest to me as I age.

It is a definite good thing to follow one's conscience and not someone else's. Society would be improved if we did what we thought was right and avoided that which is wrong, with concern for laws only for practical reasons.

Michael K writes:

I as a simple student see this Uber plan in a positive nature. From what I understand the Uber is a way to keep track of the all to common "Hey can i get a ride? Ill pay for gas." or the "Hey we are both going to the same location lets share a car and split the gas" Uber just makes this on a larger scale and even traceable. If it is traceable then it is taxable. If someone is making this into a business then they should be taxed. While I would not want to be taxed on giving a friend a ride to the same location, but if someone uses for profit then we should tax them. While the Taxi's will have some more competition there is nothing wrong with competition. As my teacher said we strive on competition. But with a business or for profit these drivers should also be held to regulations such that taxi drivers are given which will lower the supply of people willing to drive for or with uber. There will be always be a demand for taxi's as uber will need some planning or some luck while taxis are always ready.

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