Uber and Civil Disobedience

I have a new post over at the National Magazine’s Blog, arguing that to the extent that Uber and other firms of the sharing economy breach the laws that prevent them from offering their services to the public, we should assess their claims that such laws are unjust on their merits, instead of rejecting them out of hand as either lawless or self-serving. Uber is engaged in a form of civil disobedience, acting on a principled position that the restrictions on taxi services that municipal authorities in various countries, including here in Canada, invoke to stop its operations cannot be justified in a free society. The fact that it stands to benefit financially if these restrictions are lifted is simply irrelevant to the justice of its claims. Civil disobedience, as a rejection of the authority of the law, is of course disquieting ― perhaps especially to lawyers ― but not always unhealthy. For, as Henry David Thoreau long ago observed, “[l]aw never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.” Anyway, there’s quit a bit there, so I’d encourage you to read the whole thing.

There was a story that has, at first glance anyway, nothing to do with Uber that would have liked to speak about, but couldn’t think of a way to work into the post: that of a family from Cornwall, in Ontario, also engaged in civil disobedience against a municipal by-law being applied to stop its children selling worms to neighbourhood fishers. They haven’t, in case you’re wondering, torn down their house to build a worm factory. The kids are digging the worms out of the ground in their own backyard, and selling them from their own front lawn. No matter. The city is fining them 250$ a day. The parents say they will keep paying the fines ― much like Uber does for its drivers, Frank Roncarelli did for Jehovah’s witnesses, and Thoreau’s aunt did for Thoreau.

Regulations preventing people ― from the children of Eastern Ontario to the zillionaires of Silicon Valley ― from putting their work and enterprise at the service of their fellows, near or far are innumerable. They are passed, sometimes out of sheer foolishness, sometimes out of nimbyism, sometimes at the behest of those who stand to benefit from limits on competition, without attracting much attention, and remain in force indefinitely, so long as no one raises a stink about them. Indeed, raising a stink is the only way to have some of them repealed. We should not condemn the hardy few who are willing to do so as lawless or self-interested. We should be grateful to them instead.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and did graduate work at the NYU School of Law. I then taught in New Zealand before taking up my current position at Reading.

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