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The Uber Rebellion

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

Customers in Germany and elsewhere have flouted irrational attacks on the popular ride-sharing service Uber.

As I have explained before, Uber’s software lets passengers and drivers connect in a way that bypasses regularly regulated taxicabs. Cabbies don’t necessarily oppose the innovation. Many see Uber’s app as a nifty way to get customers. And, of course, many riders see it as a nifty way to get rides.

But taxi dispatchers? Well, that’s another story.

At least it is in Germany, where an organization for dispatchers called Taxi Deutschland has kvetched that the San Francisco company lacks the Necessary Permits to do electronic dispatching in Deutschland. Thanks to TD’s loud complaints, a German court issued a temporary injunction against Uber, prohibiting it from conjoining ride-seekers and ride-givers in happy synchrony.

Uber decided to keep operating in the country anyway, despite the threat of huge fines.

They’ve gotten lots of moral support. In response to the injunction, customers quietly but firmly told regulators “Laissez nous faire!” — a.k.a. “You’re not the boss of me!” — by doubling, tripling and even quintupling demand for Uber’s app. Matthew Feeney of Cato Institute points to jumps in signups in the days following the court’s order: in Frankfurt a 228 percent jump, Munich 329 percent, Hamburg 590 percent.

Last July, in the U.K., Brits surged their signups eight times over after protests against the company.

Keep up the good work, rebels.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Registering Dissent in Russia

Monday, August 25th, 2014

Russian politics — does it consist in anything but the progressive unraveling of what modest liberalization of civic life the Russians benefited after the crackup of the Soviet Union?

The latest assault on liberty? The government targeting of Russian bloggers. The most popular ones — those with 3,000 or more daily readers — must now register with the government or risk being shut down. As Bloomberg’s Ilya Khrennikov puts it, “Russian President Vladimir Putin is taking names. Potentially thousands.”

The registrants must supply real names, real addresses.

Mother Russia says it’s doing this to combat inaccurate or defamatory information — i.e., opinions it dislikes; i.e., any too critical of the government. Putin already has authority to shut down “extremist” web pages sans judicial oversight. The new law tightens the noose.

It seems there’s little we can do about this in the West except express our sympathy for Russians fighting the commissars.

Well, one other thing, at least; and not so little. Western tech firms can refrain from abetting such repression the way Yahoo did when, several years ago, it turned over user info on Chinese dissidents Wang Xiaoning and Shi Tao to the Chinese government and thus enabled their imprisonment. Facebook, Google+ and other hosts of Russian-language blogs can flatly reject demands to censor or delete these blogs — or to supply the Russian government with identifying info on the authors.

Obviously, predictions of the end of history have indeed proven premature. We’re not all liberal democrats now.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

You Own You, I Own Me

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

There’s been a lot of talk about Robert Draper’s New York Times article on a possible “libertarian moment.” On Townhall, “last weekend,” I focused on the partisan political aspect of the movement. There was a lot of curious stuff in the article, and I haven’t seen anyone comment on one of its stranger passages.

Call it a moment of culture shock.

The article briefly profiled a “Washington-based journalist” who sported “a tattoo under her right biceps that reads, ‘I Own Me.’” This is a provocation, of course, sure to annoy authoritarians and collectivists and . . . David Frum:

“What does that mean, ‘I own myself?’ ” David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and Republican commentator, sputtered in exasperation when we spoke later. “Can I sell myself? If I can’t, I don’t own myself.”

Taken at face value, one could simply answer Frum by mentioning that in olden times people could sell themselves — into slavery.

Or one could make an extended political point. “Haven’t we all sold ourselves long ago?” That might be unnerving.

But the informed answer is this: “We can’t sell ourselves because our ‘self-propriety’ (as Richard Overton put it long ago) differs from other kinds of ownership. Our self-ownership is inalienable. That’s why it’s so important.”

It’s like this: You own you, I own me — we are free.

It turns out, Mr. Frum, that this “inalienability” idea was central to much discussion of rights at the founding of our country. Funny you don’t seem to know anything about that.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Central Banks Losing Control

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

The rapid rise of interest in and use of “virtual currencies” like Bitcoin has been astounding. It probably won’t surprise you to learn what the established masters of the worlds’ monies say: Bitcoin is disruptive!

Heavens.

Bogdan Ulm, writing on Bitcoin Trader, noticed the concern in Ireland:

“Virtual and digital currencies can challenge the sovereignty of states,” says Gareth Murphy, senior Central Bank of Ireland official. At a recent digital money conference in Dublin, he mentioned that rivals are interfering with a bank’s ability to sway the price of credit for the entire economy. Murphy warned that there might be considerable threat to the finances of a country if increasingly more transactions for services and goods fade away from the tax system due to the use of crypto currencies such as Bitcoin.

Now, it’s worth mentioning that there are many economists — from a long tradition — who have denied the necessity of anyone acquiring the ability to “sway the price of credit for the entire economy.”

Separate bids and offers for credit (loaning money with interest) can be seen as signals of competing evaluations in the economy. There are tremendous forces pushing interest rates to align, and when they do (or don’t), their alignment (or lack thereof) sends important additional information to market participants about both the present and the future.

But when anyone (say, a central bank) presumes to corral all interest rates into a “coherent plan,” much of the useful meaning of signals gets lost, or jumbled, and the economy gets (inadvertently?) programmed for boom and bust.

So, when I hear that modern digital currencies could prevent central banks from “doing their business,” I wonder if, perhaps, this is not a good thing.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Declare Your Independence

Friday, July 4th, 2014

Today is Independence Day, and we’re celebrating. Tonight there will be fireworks to watch. So I’ll try to be brief.

The original independence that the Continental Congress of the seceding colonies declared, was dramatic and fundamental, as I’ve tried to honor these past two days in Common Sense.

But the idea of independence, and of our liberty that it was meant to secure, extends beyond events over two centuries ago.Declaration of Independence

Today, we are riddled with at least two kinds of dependence that are worth resisting.

  1. Economic dependence. I’m not talking about foreign trade. “Independence-with-freedom”  assumes that we will always depend on each other by co-operation. But the terms of that co-operation should be mutual. The great problem with crony capitalism and the welfare state — and even to some degree with a large federal workforce — is that increasing numbers of people (whole classes) increasingly depend on taxpayers rather than their own productivity and commerce.

    This sort of dependence depends on wealth, but provides poverty.
  2. Partisan dependence. The polarization of the two political parties has become increasingly ideological — as it was at the beginning of the country, actually — and is becoming increasingly nasty. Americans seem “stuck.” Breaking apart from the parties might make for a more honest and productive debate.

One way to accomplish the latter? Work for general, non-partisan — “transpartisan” — reforms, like term limits . . . and other measures aimed at greater representation, from mandating smaller districts to establishing ranked choice voting.

Remember, in 24 states and most cities and towns, citizens also have the initiative and referendum process to act directly. Staying focused on issues is the key to working across partisan divides.

Who knows what improvements we might be able to make?

What begins by thinking independently comes to fruition in successful cooperation.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

The Reason for the “Treason”

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

The United States of America is exceptional in at least one way: it was founded by folks who made very clear that the reasons for breaking with past allegiance and alliance — indeed, subjugation — rested, finally, on an idea: liberty.

No doubt that was just an excuse for some founders. And no doubt Americans never kept liberty foremost in their minds for long. But the emphasis at the beginning on the moral principles altered not merely the American consciousness, but the conscience of the world.

The principles led a list of complaints, and were preceded by an explanation for their necessity: “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” required the public statement.Declaration of Independence

The meat of the argument is this:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

You may write it a bit differently. (Too many, today, wouldn’t write it at all.) But whether you make minor edits for modernized style, or substantive edits for some paradigm shifts, the basic idea, that somehow government must rest on consent — not on mere accommodation to terrorizing force — remains one of the most potent ideas ever promoted.

A moral, informed consent binds government, or at least limits it: this is the notion that changed the world.

For the better.

Remember, though: the break with Great Britain was deemed, by King George III, treasonous.

But it was very reasonable.

We have a lot of reasons, today, to resist a lot of homegrown tyranny. As in 1776, the future hangs in the balance. Fortunately, our founders did a good enough job that what we do now requires less than their “treason.” Still, just like them, our lives, our liberties, and our sacred honor are on the line.

We’ve got some work to do.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Opposites for Independence

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

Could any two men be more different than John Adams and Thomas Jefferson? And yet, I doubt if the United States would exist were it not for both. Somehow, they worked together when it counted. And worked against each other, when it seemed necessary.

Yet they respected each other (in their different ways), and before the end, after a long estrangement, became close friends.Thomas Jefferson

The story is well known: on his deathbed on July 4, 1826, Adams whispered, “Thomas Jefferson survives!” He was wrong. Jefferson had died earlier that day, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Adams was also wrong about Independence Day. On July 2, 1776, after the Lee Resolution for independence passed the Continental Congress, he wrote that “the second day of July” would become the day of “a great anniversary festival.” But “by 1777,” Steve Tally noted in Bland Ambition, his jovial history of the vice presidency, “people were already celebrating the Fourth of July.”

John AdamsBut give him his due: it was Adams who insisted that Jefferson write the Declaration, and it was indeed its words — especially that of its “mission statement” preamble — that resonate almost universally to this day. And gave birth to the annual festivities.

Adams, Tally tells us, was “short, round, peevish, a loudmouth, and frequently a bore.” Jefferson, on the other hand, was tall, handsome, polite, and much more popular. And a much better writer. Which is why he was given his great job, to produce the Declaration.

Great writer or no, it’s not as if the tall redhead’s initial draft was acceptable as it flowed from the pen. Adams, Franklin, and the whole congress got in on the editing job. “Jefferson liked to recall that his document survived further [extensive] editing,” Tally explains, “because of the meeting hall’s proximity to a livery stable.” Still, it’s obvious that Jefferson wasn’t the only genius in the room, and that without Adams’s tireless work, independence might not have gotten off the ground.Declaration of Independence

The later history of both men, in service to the country they helped found, is riddled with ambiguities and even horrible moral and political lapses. Adams was the kind of politician who not only opposed term limits, but opposed terms: he thought men raised to office should be kept there forever. Jefferson leaned not merely the other direction, but flirted with the notion of a revolution every generation.

I adhere to the anti-federalist slogan of their day, “that where annual elections end, tyranny begins.”

Between the two extremes of these two great men, somehow, the republic survived. And thrived. Their correspondence is a mine of great wisdom, their biographies well worth reading.

Most of all, their legacy — of July 2 and July 4, 1776, and the universal rights of man — remains worth fighting for.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.