It may seem unusual to combine a movie and a new car service in the same column, yet I think the two subjects offer mutually reinforcing lessons about the problems which keep us from a more prosperous, better life. Let me start with the movie.
Over Christmas, Callista and I went to see Les Misérables. It is a wonderful musical based on Victor Hugo's novel. Do not go without a handkerchief because you will need it. Les Misérables is a great love story, a story of good triumphing over evil. A story of Christian love changing a man's heart and that man going on to befriend and change others. The central source of pain in Les Misérables is the government. It is the story of harsh, inhumane laws enforced by a harsh, inhumane policeman which form the crux of the challenge.
Yet as I watched the movie and its remarkable portrait of poverty and helplessness, I had to marvel at how much America and Europe world have grown beyond that era.
Despite the current economic challenges, virtually no one in the Western world lives in the kind of poverty depicted in Les Misérables. The core reason is not redistribution or government controls. The core reason is the power of entrepreneurial free enterprise to use new innovations and new technologies to produce abundance for everyone.
It is not the young revolutionaries of the movie who provide change. Nor is it the power of the state as exemplified by its harsh policeman. The cause of the vast abundance we live in is the extraordinary effort of inventors from Benjamin Franklin (bifocal glasses, the lightning rod, the Franklin stove) to Robert Fulton (the steam boat) to Henry Ford (mass produced automobiles and a model of production which brought down price and increased availability of virtually everything).
In our own times, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Sam Walton, and others have been inventing an availability of information and goods and services which has increased availability and lowered cost on a worldwide basis. More people live better with more choices today because of entrepreneurial free enterprise than from all the socialist, government-led redistribution and bureaucratic control schemes in the world.
Which brings us to Uber.
Uber is a new car service which allows you to use a smartphone app to find town car drivers nearby and summon them to where you are. They’ll take you anywhere in the area for around $20. It is wildly popular in cities across the country. Uber provides a better service at lower cost, on demand. Customers -- and I myself -- love it. Government regulators and taxi company owners, however, hate it. Uber and its Information Age competitors are offering a better deal for customers but they are a real threat to traditional cab services and a real threat to the governments which enjoy restricting and regulating the consumer.
The new services are facing totally unjustifiable regulations in cities across the country, usually at the behest of the taxi monopolies. The New York Times’ Brian X. Chen wrote a great exposé of the effort by bureaucrats, regulators and can company owners to cripple the emerging start ups. As he reported: “There are dozens of other car-summoning apps, some even more unconventional than Uber. Lyft, released in May by a start-up called Zimride, allows ordinary citizens to give rides to others in their own cars in return for “donations.” SideCar, another start-up, offers a similar service. Like Uber, these companies are also facing a $20,000 fine from the California Public Utilities Commission for operating without a license.”
Liberating the consumer and the entrepreneur from government strangulation will do more to improve the lives of citizens, create jobs, lower costs and increase the standard of living than all the left wing redistribution and government control ideas in the world.
The lesson of Les Misérables and Uber is that we need a movement for a better future to see beyond the current Washington mess and begin advocating policies that will create a better future for all of us.
Newt Gingrich is a former Speaker of the House of Representatives.