Uber uber alles?

I am teaching a seminar in the Econ Department at Berkeley covering Karl Marx’s economic system in volume one of Capital. To get there, however, we have to pass through GWF Hegel’s “Civil Society,” §§182-256. Which is where Uber, the transportation service, comes in. Like Adam Smith, Hegel too was intrigued by the production function, the relationship between capital and labour wherein each credits technological innovation with the potential of increasing production with diminishing labour. Adam Smith’s apocryphal story about the boy who invented a mechanism for the fire engine boiler to relieve him of this task “and leave him at liberty to divert himself with his play-fellow” (I.i 20 [1776]) is sufficiently well-known not to require comment. As it will later in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, so here in Smith’s Wealth of Nations, efficiency is held to issue not only in a greater volume of goods at the same or diminished cost, but, more importantly, to yield substantive liberty or freedom (i.e., more leisure time) to the worker. Hegel, too, is intrigued by the possibility that ever greater specialization will break each task into ever smaller, simpler parts; parts so simple that a mechanism might just as well perform the task, allowing the worker “to step aside and let a machine take his place”:

The universal and objective aspect of work consists, however, in that [process of] abstraction which confers a specific character on means and needs and hence also on production, so giving rise to the division of labour. Through this division, the work of the individual [des Einzelnen] becomes simpler, so that his skill at his abstract work becomes greater, as does the volume of his output. At the same time, this abstraction of skill and means makes the dependence and reciprocity of human beings in the satisfaction of their other needs complete and entirely necessary. Furthermore, the abstraction of production makes work increasingly mechanical, so that the human being is eventually able to step aside and let a machine take his place (§198).

uber-logoIt is in this context that a student raises the reasonable question about the efficiencies entailed by Uber. First and most obviously, the efficiencies arising out of Uber are administrative and regulatory and not technical in nature. Presumably the auto, the driver, the insurance, the maintenance of the private auto, the registered taxi cab, or the Uber vehicle are identical. The efficiency arises then not out of the simplification and subsequent mechanization of a task, but from the externalization of maintenance costs, the externalization of benefit costs, and from the enlargement of the potential workforce, which, all else being equal, places downward pressures on wages. The distributive technological element upon which Uber relies is the most often referenced, but least important feature of Uber since it relies upon coding that is in the public domain, and since therefore its efficiencies can be shared by any coach service (as, in fact, registered taxi cab services scramble to adopt similar technologies).

A more adequate example might therefore be a mass transit train or bus that transports much larger numbers of people more efficiently to and from destinations. Assume for a moment that we only enjoy two transportation alternatives, taxi cabs or buses. Let us also assume that taxi cabs employ more workers than buses and that while maintenance and insurance per vehicle is higher for buses than for taxi cabs, buses transport more people for a lower cost than taxi cabs could transport the same number of people.

While this example comes closer to Hegel’s model, it still falls short because Hegel is imagining that an aggregate set of workers who previously had been employed without the benefit of mechanization — let us say a team of individual coach drivers — are collectively able to step aside once they purchase a single bus to fetch and ferry their fares. Hegel is imagining in other words that all of those who formerly fetched and ferried individual fares would collectively benefit from the efficiencies enjoyed by purchasing and managing a bus to cover the same territory.

It is at this point, however, that a second Hegelian principle kicks in: infinite desire. For, it turns out, I do not want to be stuffed into a public bus which, in order to satisfy the needs of all of its fares, must travel to and fro, much delaying my own itinerary. Again, like Smith, Hegel too distinguishes human beings in this regard from animals whose desires are limited by instinct. My desires, by contrast, are unlimited and are constrained only by my wealth. Unlike Smith, however, Hegel characterizes my boundless desire as a “false infinity.”

Through their representations [Vorstellungen] and reflections, human beings expand their desires, which do not form a closed circle like animal instinct, and extend them to false [schlechte] infinity. But on the other hand, deprivation and want are likewise boundless, and this confused situation can be restored to harmony only through the forcible intervention of the state. Although Plato’s state sought to exclude particularity, this is of no help, because such help would contradict the infinite right of the Idea to allow particularity its freedom (§185).

In other words, left to itself, the market will not prefer the bus to the private coach. In response to my boundless desire, the market will adjust to my need for more comfort, greater speed, greater privacy, lower costs and will, in response to my boundless desire therefore multiply the goods and so the employment alternatives for laborers who, out of their own needs, are ready to satisfy my own. Like Adam Smith’s fire engine boy who wishes to play with his friends, the moment when I can step aside and install a machine in my place never in fact arrives. Only under the condition that the state steps in and restricts my freedom will my “false infinity” be held in check. And, yet, this solution clearly troubles Hegel since this state assistance “would contradict the infinite right of the Idea to allow particularity its freedom.”

Only at the margins, notes Hegel, does the market moderate my desire. “The very multiplication of needs has a restraining influence on desire, for if people make use of many things, the pressure to obtain any one of these which they might need is less strong, and this is a sign that necessity [die Not] in general is less powerful” (§190). Otherwise, my desire consumes the potential freedom released by mechanization. “This process of formation gives the means their value and appropriateness, so that man, as a consumer, is chiefly concerned with human products, and it is human effort which he consumes” (§196). My desire, an expression of my freedom, consumes free time.

And, yet, clearly this is not the end of the story for Hegel. For even as my bottomless desire consumes free time and so eliminates the efficiencies generated by mechanization, it also therein multiplies the inefficiencies entailed by the satisfaction of my desires. And it is for this reason that Hegel characterizes civil society, left to its own devices, as inherently incoherent and self-defeating:

Particularity in itself [für sich], on the one hand indulging itself in all directions as it satisfies its needs, contingent arbitrariness, and subjective caprice, destroys itself and its substantial concept in the act of enjoyment; on the other hand, as infinitely agitated and continually dependent on external contingency and arbitrariness and at the same time limited by the power of universality, the satisfaction of both necessary and contingent needs is itself contingent. In these opposites and their complexity, civil society affords a spectacle of extravagance and misery as well as of the physical and ethical corruption common to both (§185).

What is missing according to Hegel is an agent or actor representing the public interest, which evidently does not, nor can ever arise out of even the aggregate of private interests represented by civil society.

Which brings us back to Uber. No, Uber does not constitute a social efficiency. Even on a regulatory and administrative level, its relative greater efficiency over registered taxi cabs or public transportation would have to be demonstrated and cannot be assumed. (Is there, for example, a net time over cost gain; or is this no more than a rent-seeking opportunity created by the externalization of costs?) In any event, however, Uber does not yield the kind of substantive freedom Hegel contemplated in his discussion of technological innovation. Moreover, even were we to assume that by relieving registered taxi cab drivers of their employment, this technology allowed taxi cab drivers to “step aside and install [Uber] in their place,” since registered taxi cab drivers are not members of the community benefiting from this technology, it would be more apt to lump them with Adam Smith’s fire engine boy, who presumably never did run off to play with his friends but was instead recruited to work in the dangerous textile industry on London’s East End. Which, of course, is no argument in favor of private coaches, whose desire to limit Uber arises no less than the desire of Uber drivers, from the very particularity whose desires know no bounds.

None of this, of course, would have surprised Georg Wilhelm in the least. In order to take advantage of the efficiencies produced by mechanization, Hegel recognized that the public and public interest would have to play the decisive part identifying leisure time, health, and education as public values worth cultivating. Hegel felt that he had discerned a possible mechanism driving this public interest in the generally recognized revulsion that seizes cultured individuals when they encounter poverty, exciting in them the desire to take steps publicly, beyond “the contingent character of almsgiving and charitable donations (e.g. for burning lamps before the images of saints, etc.),” to improve the condition of individuals caught in poverty.

The subjective aspect of poverty, and in general of every kind of want to which all individuals are exposed, even in their natural environment, also requires subjective help, both with regard to the particular circumstances and with regard to emotion and love. This is a situation in which, notwithstanding all universal arrangements, morality finds plenty to do. But since this help, both in itself [für sich] and in its effects, is dependent on contingency, society endeavours to make it less necessary by identifying the universal aspects of want and taking steps to remedy them (§242).

In this sense, Hegel recognized (pardon the pun) that Uber was ill-suited to be über alles. Nicht war?

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