You might be an Ubertarian

Over at Housing Complex, Aaron Wiener pokes fun at what he calls “Ubertarians.”

These are people who “support government regulation—except when it inconveniences them,”  ”love public transit, especially the not-so-public kind,” “hate meddlesome neighbors, but will eagerly meddle themselves when riled up,” “vote Democratic, but they kind of love Pat Mara,” and “hate the Height Act.”

I don’t closely follow electoral politics, so I won’t comment on the Pat Mara part aside from the obvious point that nearly everyone in D.C. votes Democratic.

Since Aaron asked readers to add traits to the Ubertarian archetype, here’s my list:

1. They can distinguish pecuniary externalities from real externalities. 

A real externality is a cost that falls on a third party from a transaction, such as pollution from a factory or the effects of second-hand cigarette smoke. That is, the externality is real in the sense that it usually involves some kind of physical or non-price resource like air, pollutants, noise, light, or damage to property.  When costs are borne by third parties–rather than those involved in the transaction itself–the economy as a whole is less efficient, and life is less fair. Standard economics teaches us that the government should intervene with a tax, fee, or other regulation to address the problem.

A pecuniary externality, on the other hand, operates through the price system and doesn’t cause a loss of efficiency. It also doesn’t result in an unfair situation. For example, if your neighbors discover that Vietnamese food is delicious and purchase it more often, the price of phở can increase. This increase in price converts consumer surplus to producer surplus. It could be argued that consumers are worse off after the change, but that loss is offset by a bonus to the producer, who receives a benefit for providing a product that consumers like.  Most people would say this kind of externality is fair, and standard economics teaches us that the government shouldn’t intervene to correct it.

Another example of a pecuniary externality could be loss of income for taxi drivers caused by the market entrance of a new company that provides a better service and doesn’t do bad things like refuse to pick up black or disabled customers.

2. They can distinguish between consumer protection and rent-seeking.

Ubertarians probably appreciate that it’s illegal to drive passengers in an unsafe car, or hire someone who doesn’t know how to drive. But that’s already illegal because driving itself is a highly-regulated activity. Ubertarians realize that some regulations, like the D.C. Taxicab Commission’s attacks on UberX, are really about protecting cabbies from competition.

3. They probably aren’t libertarians.

Most District residents who like Uber, who opposed the silly proposed liquor license moratorium, and who want to abolish the height limit are progressives. But that doesn’t mean that they are gullible enough to think that every ban or regulation that comes through the pipe is a good idea. Nor should it.

In the end, Ubertarians might not actually exist. But, if anything, Aaron Wiener sounds a bit like an Ubertarian himself!