Uber Drivers—This Century's Yeomen of Liberty

One of the great pleasures of using Uber is talking to drivers about why they have chosen to use the service. Almost to a man (and so far all my drivers have been men) they celebrate being their own boss.  They decide when and where they would like to drive and even what model of car they will use.

Their ebullience about Uber is also informed by their previous experiences as employees. Quite a few previously worked for limousine companies and had difficulty getting along with management. One was summarily fired to make way for a nephew of the owner.

Their independence has social and political as well as personal benefits. It is striking in my conversations how aware they are of regulatory threats to their business and of the price of inputs, like insurance. Their knowledge translates into a healthy skepticism of government intervention generally. The political sensibility that comes from being in small business is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty. Even George McGovern moved right on government regulation when he became a small hotel owner late in life.

Compare this sensibility with employees in large companies. They are not responsible for making ends meet in their business.  Their paycheck does not vary immediately with government regulation. To be sure, in the long term government interventions can affect their income, but their relative insulation deadens recognition of the heavy hand of the state.

Thomas Jefferson was right that yeomen farmers help promote political liberty. But the problem for his vision was that liberty also allows people to pool their efforts in corporations, and those corporations are often more efficient than individual efforts in the marketplace.  The best political aspect of Uber and other similar services in the sharing economy is that they combine efficiency and independence, creating a mixture of what is best about the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian models for society.

The employment relation can provide a useful framework of discipline for workers who would prefer a stable platform for their lives. But there need to be more jobs that allow people to strike out on their own.  In doing so, they help not only themselves but their fellow citizens by becoming sentinels against the excesses of government.