Uber-Capitalists and Food Trucks

The Houston political scene has seen its share of hot-button issues lately. In June, I wrote about the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which the City Council passed in May. In the intervening months, the City has undergone a public debate concerning two separate industries and whether to allow certain forms of competition in the marketplace.
First, there’s the restaurant industry’s battle with Mobile Food Units (food trucks). As anyone who has lived in Houston for a while knows, food trucks have become increasingly popular in the last five years or so. These culinary caravans hop from spot to spot serving up interesting and unique food choices—mostly dishes that you can serve in a plastic bowl or in a paper bag. Food trucks must be permitted, inspected, and follow similar health regulations as brick and mortar restaurants. They are also subject to other requirements but generally permitted to serve food wherever they want—except for downtown, which boasts a bustling daytime population and, therefore, an opportunity for increased revenue for the food trucks.
Food truck owners have tried to lobby City Council to change these regulations without success (yet). Brick and mortar restaurant owners have used their best lobbying tactics to keep food trucks out of downtown—even citing the increased risk that food trucks will attract terrorists. City Council members actually used this argument in voting to deny changes to the regulations. At public hearings, some council members have said that allowing food trucks into downtown would be unfair to brick and mortar restaurateurs who have invested heavily in their own restaurants. At a recent hearing, one council member asked, in effect, “what would you tell a restaurant owner who had invested his life savings into his restaurant when a food truck parks less than a block from his restaurant and takes his customers away?” A food truck owner in the audience chimed in: “make a better product!” You can find the proposed changes to Chapter 20 of the City ordinances here. Mayor Parker has announced that she will make certain changes to the restrictions, which do not require City Council approval, via Executive Order in September.
The second hot-button issue is the battle between traditional taxi services and up-and-coming transportation start-ups, Uber and Lyft. Like traditional taxis, Uber and Lyft provide transportation services for a fee. Unlike taxis, however, these new companies connect riders with willing drivers via smartphone app and GPS locator. What’s more, Uber and Lyft drivers are typically part-time drivers who use their own vehicles. The new smart-phone ride services have taken urban areas by storm as a cheaper, deregulated alternative to taxis. When they came to Houston, Uber and Lyft drivers faced stiff opposition from the taxi industry and were often cited for “operating an illegal taxi service.” The taxi industry sought to ban companies like Uber and Lyft altogether—or at least severely restrict their ability to operate in the same market as traditional taxis. It was full-employment for taxi lobbyists. But after several public hearings concerning the issue, City Council voted to allow app-based transportation companies to operate in Houston with certain restrictions related to insurance, background checks, and handicap access. Many taxi drivers were upset, claiming that these new companies would negatively impact their business and that their taxi driver permits were now “worthless.” In the end, it was a compromise for both sides—Uber and Lyft got to stay, but they had to give up some of the features that made them innovative in the first place.
Now that the stage is set, how should Christians think about these things? What is really going on here? As Christians, we know that motives matter, and a wise person will be able to discern true motives in a complicated situation (Prov. 20:5). We also know that a robust Christian worldview, including principles of fair business and trade, springs from a love of God’s word and a love of one’s neighbor.
We can view the latest events at City Hall for what it is: an attempt to decrease overall competition in the marketplace in order to preserve the wealth and status of current market participants. What lies at the root of a desire to control markets where others wish to invest their resources? I believe it is envy.
Envy is a central aspect of covetousness, and it is the evil desire to see another person’s wealth or station reduced to the level one’s own (James 4:2). It is profoundly unloving, for an envious person seeks to deprive his neighbor of what he only seeks for himself: success. In our modern economy, this takes place under the guise of “fairness”, ethical posturing, and through government intervention. But a prudent and wise person will see through to the common thread: envious practices seek to prevent or prohibit one or another class of persons from acquiring wealth in order to preserve or protect the wealth of the envious. We have seen this at play in Houston for the last several months. It is not good.
A Christian worldview recognizes that competition, investment, and innovation are good uses of the various gifts that God has given mankind. We were created to be cultivators, creators, and wise investors. Consider the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14–30; at the least, through that parable we can understand that God does not despise prudent investment and returns from what he gives us. In fact, it is a characteristic of the Kingdom itself.
R.J. Rushdoony once said that true capitalism is supremely a product of Christianity. Capitalism best embodies what Christianity teaches about property, fair trade, wealth, and man’s relationship to his neighbor and his property. In other words, capitalism is the the way in which free people love their neighbor with their capital. We demonstrate our love for Christ and for our neighbor by respecting our neighbor’s right to do with his capital what he wishes. A free market, therefore, is the opposite of envy. So welcome Uber and Lyft into the market, and rejoice that food trucks will be allowed downtown. The spirit of envy has no place in a Kingdom-minded economy.
Of course, there are bound to be nuances in complicated situations such as these. And one cannot say that every taxi driver is envious of every Uber and Lyft driver; or that every restaurateur covets the food truck. What we can do, however, is think clearly and biblically about the underlying values of a general disdain for competition that manifests itself in these ways. Christians should welcome open, free competition in the marketplace. It drives innovation and benefits society as a whole, while encouraging those with capital to invest wisely toward the mutual benefit of our brothers and sisters. And at the end of the day, the law of love demands that we wish just as much success upon our neighbors—and their start-ups—as we wish upon ourselves. So let us be “Uber-capitalists” for the glory of God and the good of this city.
Kyle Bryant is an attorney (and urban design enthusiast) with Bryant Law in Houston, Texas. His practice focuses on civil litigation and family law issues. He is also an active member at Sojourn Heights Church in The Heights neighborhood of Houston. He can be reached at kyle@bryantlaw.net