Should hacks be busted, regulated or ignored?
Great story by Laura Vozzella on Baltimore's thriving hack industry. Hacks routinely carry residents of Baltimore's poorer neighborhoods to faraway supermarkets, where the clients can buy a wide variety of foods at decent prices. The piece is a good case study on the demerits and benefits of regulation.
If you carry passengers in your car for a fee, Baltimore, like most cities, requires you to have a taxi license. Hacks don't. They're operating illegally. But they're providing an obviously popular and important service -- ferrying people to otherwise inaccessible grocery stores at fares that are probably much lower than what licensed cabs would charge.
Should the city crack down on hacks? Vozzella notes that they can be dangerous and even deadly. Several hack customers have been raped. Two hack drivers were shot and killed in April. Hacks are seemingly more hazardous than regulated taxies.
But if you put hacks out of business, you'll deprive many people of greater food and transportation choice. Shoppers would have to pay the higher fares of licensed cabs, which might be out of reach for many. Without transportation they would have to rely on neighborhood offerings, which are often less healthy and more expensive. And of course hacks provide one of the few ways in some neighborhoods to earn a living without peddling drugs.
Note that, in the practical absence of regulation and enforcement, private parties have come together to address the risks of Baltimore hacking in a way that would warm a libertarian's heart. As Vozzella notes, supermarkets run background checks on hacks and issue them IDs for customers to check. Hacks try to run a smooth show and keep bad actors out of the business. Supermarkets won't issue an ID unless a hack "captain" vouches for a new driver. Customers stick with the hacks they know and trust.
It seems like self-regulation may be working -- until it doesn't. How should Baltimore respond? Should it crack down? Enforcement would divert public safety resources the city badly needs elsewhere. Should it continue ignoring hacks? That might put new hack customers in danger. Should it issue special hack licenses that are more restrictive than cab licenses? That would require new rules, regs, administrators, enforcers etc.