In September, the ride-hailing company Uber was denied a license to continue operating in the city of London, one of the largest and most important metropolitan markets in the world. Uber has amassed a considerable operation in London since it first arrived in 2012: more than three million riders and 40,000 drivers utilize the app to seek and provide transportation within the city.

Transport for London, the agency that oversees transportation in the city, deemed that the company was not “fit and proper” to operate. Specific reasons cited in the decision varied, ranging from how Uber conducts background checks on drivers to its attempts to prevent regulators from exercising full oversight on the app.

Concerns over Uber’s toxic corporate culture have pervaded the national conversation in recent months, and this discussion has extended far beyond the company’s problems in London. In June, Uber’s founder, Travis Kalanick, was forced to resign as CEO due to the aggressive, and often misogynistic, corporate culture he had formed.

The reaction of London’s taxicab industry to the departure of Uber has been one of jubilation. “Black cabs,” as they are known, may have felt threatened by the emergence of a new, cheaper competitor in a marketplace they historically dominated. Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association, has praised the decision as the “right call.” And before the ban, more than 8,000 cab drivers blocked traffic in Central London to protest the presence of Uber.     

Uber may currently embody a corporate culture that is deeply flawed, but the question remains as to whether Uber’s conduct justifies such extreme governmental intervention to ban the company from London entirely. 

Some may suggest that London was right in banning Uber to protect citizens from the dangers of Uber’s corporate practices. In other words, they believe that heavy-handed, paternalistic action, without consulting the people who will be affected, constitutes the best way to promote the public interest in London’s transportation system.

However, there is something inherently patronizing about governments attempting to act as omniscient social planners by dictating the choices people make in their lives from cradle to grave. If Uber and taxicabs are allowed to compete freely without governmental interference, people who truly disapprove of Uber’s corporate culture are welcome to boycott the company, as more than 200,000 consumers already have, while those seeking a more economical option can continue to utilize the app and enjoy its lower fares.

The issue of transportation represents an excellent example of the potential for new technologies to emerge and disrupt existing industry, a trend that has always existed but has become particularly pertinent in the 21st century, as exemplified by Uber. For years, London cab drivers’ geographic acumen constituted a significant competitive edge over other potential services: to become a London cab driver, one must pass an incredibly rigorous test covering more than 25,000 street names within the city. However, the advent of modern GPS technology has diminished this genuinely impressive skill to redundancy and irrelevance.

At this point, there are probably more questions than answers as to the impact that disruptive technologies will have in the coming decades. However, one prospective answer to the changing economy is undoubtedly the wrong one: attempting to regulate new technologies out of existence, a strategy that protects existing industries at the expense of consumers.

Writing in 1845, the economist Frederic Bastiat echoed these sentiments in his Candle Maker’s Petition, a satirical critique of protectionist policies to benefit existing industries. In the piece, Bastiat contends that the government must act to protect the candle makers from a deviously invasive competitor—the Sun—by compelling individuals to block all natural light from their homes so they will buy more candles. Bastiat’s analysis was also clairvoyant in a sense, as Edison’s invention of the lightbulb in 1879 presented yet another challenge to the unfortunate candle makers.

While advancing the argument that Bastiat mocked in the Candle Maker’s Petition seems ludicrous, proponents of the London ban seem to be supporting the same type of logic. In both cases, protectionists advocate on behalf of exclusionary policies that are both misguided and untenable. If a nascent technology promises to improve people’s lives over the status quo, it ought to be able to overcome past norms and provide consumers with an improved good or service. How many of us still light our rooms with candles alone, board boats to cross the oceans or compose on the typewriter?       

The inclination to remain free represents an essential hallmark of any civil society. In addition to basic liberties such as the free exercise of speech and religion, people’s ability to make autonomous choices regarding their own lives forms another critical aspect of a holistically free society. While the city of London justified its ban on grounds of corporate governance, the decision reeks of protectionism to benefit the existing taxicab industry at the expense of consumers and fair competition.

The city’s decision represents an unfortunate loss for the people of London, and for freedom more broadly as a guiding societal ideal.

Ian Buchanan is a Trinity sophomore. His column, "let freedom ring," runs on alternate Wednesdays.