It was a great run, really. For most of its brief existence, Uber has gotten nothing but great press—and deservedly so, since the popular ridesharing service has provided a great way for people in cities to work around sclerotic taxi commissions and local cartels that serve entrenched business interests rather people looking for convenient new ways of getting around in cities.
But lately—and especially after offensive statements about investigating journalists critical of the company’s top management and some of its business practices—the only press Uber seems to be getting these days is bad press. “Call it Uber Angst,” reads a typical recent story in The New York Times about the growing movement to delete Uber’s app due to perceived moral lapses. “This is a new quandary faced by customers reliant on Uber’s on-demand taxi app but unsettled about supporting a company whose attitudes toward privacy and women have been making headlines.”
Here’s something else to consider: After spending years antagonizing would-be regulators, Uber is now working with them to hammer out agreements that will let the company flourish even as less-connected competitors face tougher regulations.
Does this latest strategy, which involves hiring former Barack Obama adviser David Plouffe to smooth things with cities, mark Uber’s turn from market disrupter to political player? That’s the question I ask in my latest Time column. A snippet:
In The Myth of the Robber Barons, historian Burton W. Folsom made a distinction between market entrepreneurs, who got rich by providing goods and services to people at cheaply and efficiently, and political entrepreneurs, who maintained and grew their market share by lobbying for regulations and special privileges that gave them an edge. Folsom underscored that it’s common for market entrepreneurs to become political entrepreneurs (think Thomas Edison, who used all sorts of political connections to kneecap market rivals).
Uber’s latest strategy may make sense from a business point of view—Plouffe even calls it “Uber-mentum”—but if you believe in free markets, it’s just as dispiriting as most of the other things that have ginned up anti-Uber fervor. And to the extent that new regulations make it that much harder for the next great disruptive business to come along, it’s worse still.