Government and good samaritans have a role in crises, and so does the market.
I appreciate the engagement on this, Jacques. I’ve been interested in the “price gouging” issue for years, and I drove Lyft for about six months. Your first mistake was to tell me what “[my] vision” is. Here’s my vision with thoughts on what you’ve said.
Saying that privately run transportation services should be allowed to operate in a crisis—such as the recent Chelsea bombing or the Sydney hostage crisis of 2014—is not the same as saying that only private services should be allowed to operate. You seem to think my view is the latter; it’s the former.
The appropriate governmental response will obviously depend on the severity and nature of crisis. But, as a basic model, here are my thoughts: An area will need to be cordoned off, prohibiting pedestrians and traffic from entering, for safety and investigative purposes. Some subway lines and stops should be closed, and some buses will needed to be rerouted. Cars—i.e., fleeing drivers, taxis, Uber, Lyft, good samaritan drivers — will be free to move about outside the perimeter of the emergency zone. People should be notified of the perimeter, subway closings, and bus changes. If the threat is severe enough, bus stops close to the incident should be secured by the authorities—meaning, safety and crowd control. That’s my basic vision of the government’s role.
When bombs are blowing up here and there or active shooters are on the loose, there is an obvious risk of gathering hundreds of people into one place while they wait to board buses or cars. So allowing people to disperse anywhere along the perimeter and beyond reduces the inherent risk of crowds forming. Obviously, only cars can pick these people up—so we should let them. Of course, people who walk around trying to hail a cab, rather than gathering into a “secured” area and waiting in line for a bus, face risks as well. I’d want people to know their options and do what they think is best. This seems easily attainable given our communication technology.
Jacques, you worry about the congestion that unregulated drivers would cause, but you don’t seem to consider that the “FIFO queues” you propose would create bottlenecks of their own. Sure, if you assume an all powerful government with omniscient bureaucrats, then of course your plan will work wonderfully. But it seems sensible—and moral—to allow people to leave the line and go hail a taxi or meet an Uber nearby. I think you have a fantasy that you can force rich people to wait in your lines, but I don’t think you can make anyone wait as a practical matter, and it would be immoral to do so.
Whether “unregulated” drivers would cause disastrous congestion is an empirical question. How do you know that car drivers looking to help (or make money) will flood the scene to such an extent that they become more harmful than helpful?
I’m not sure why you are focusing on “single passengers” and a “1 to 1” match between passenger and car. All cars approved by Uber and Lyft seat at least four passengers. People have friends and families, and the apps allow strangers to split fares—plus people could do this with cash. Higher fares create more incentive to split fares and fill all car seats. Many people will share their ride without giving money a thought because they just want to help others under the circumstances.
Similarly, there would be good samaritan drivers who pick up people in need for free. That’s enviable. However, if there are still people in need of rides, then a higher price can entice Uber drivers on the margin to pick them up. (This is the principle of surge pricing. Whether or not Uber or Lyft is getting the prices right is a separate question.)
Your boat lift example—where boats streamed to Manhattan piers during 9/11 to evacuate half a million people—seems to undercut your own argument rather than my own. What regulatory apparatus guided these boats? Did the congestion on the river cancel out the value of the transportation provided to these people? (Granted, the river is not Manhattan streets.) Are the boat drivers trained and informed what to do in such situations? Are you worried about the additional risk these boat drivers were incurring, as you are the Uber drivers? The boat drivers did this for free—or in your terms, “for fucking free”—because they wanted to help people in need. Is altruism precluded by anything I or Russ Roberts said?
These boat drivers are heroes. However, if some boat drivers wanted to charge passengers, the law shouldn’t prohibit them from doing so. It’s hard to know exactly where the boundary lies between morally charging a fee and immorally charging a fee. For example, how many blocks would someone have to be from the site of the bombing to make it acceptable for a taxi picking them up to charge a fare? As one’s location moves farther from the explosion, the situation is less urgent. At some distance, it’s just a regular taxi ride. My presumption is for moral social norms and stigma to determine these boundaries rather than state laws.
To my mind, the central issue is whether surge pricing—and prices more generally—should be regulated by the government. I think that, in general, price controls are a very bad way to try to achieve equity goals. You haven’t explicitly said that you want surge pricing banned, but I suspect you do.