Sunday, October 01, 2006

Prohibition in a taxi

So it turns out that an increasing (and non-trivial) number of cab drivers in Minneapolis refuse to accept passengers that are carrying alcohol (original hat tip: Little Green Footballs). Not drunk. Not drinking. Not carrying open bottles. No, we're talking about people in possession of sealed, legal bottles of alcoholic beverages.

I don't want to talk about the legal question of whether or not this is allowed. My quick perusal of NY taxi regulations (see section 2-50) suggests that it wouldn't be permitted out here, but I know that there are plenty of lawyers in the country that could shed more light on this than I. Instead, I want to talk about the principle involved, and how that fits within an open society.

The argument by the drivers is that it conflicts with and/or offends their religious beliefs to have to accept fares that carry alcohol. If this is the operative principal - namely that one can refuse service (in a regulated, licensed industry, no less) because of personal offense or beliefs - then under what rationale could we proscribe a driver from refusing service to:
  • someone carrying certain types of foods (non-kosher, for example)?
  • a member of the military (could be a pacifist driver)?
  • an African-American (if the driver was a white supremacist)?
  • an unmarried, unrelated man and woman traveling together?
We could keep coming up with other examples all day, but you get the point. Again, I don't want to hear "legalese" about protected versus non-protected classes, etc. - that is a different issue. I want to hear about the principle involved.

People are welcome to their beliefs. Yet it is simply not true that at every point where an individual's personal belief clashes against societal norms, that the personal belief has to triumph over the rest. Actually, very close to the opposite is true, at least insofar as the public sphere is concerned. To live in a society such as ours is to implicitly accept an affirmative responsibility to work/live/peacefully coexist with people very different from you. And that includes people with whom you disagree. If you don't like that deal, then maybe this isn't the place for you. Don't worry - it's a big world, and you have other options.

If you hold certain beliefs so strongly, you inevitably preclude yourself from certain professions. Just like the Amish shouldn't expect to be electricians, nor most vegans butchers, people who want to pick and choose passengers based on their perceived purity shouldn't be cab drivers. Think that's unfair? Tough.

I'm curious: if they do install these special lights atop taxis out there, showing drivers that refuse to accept passengers with alcohol, am I allowed to refuse to let them take me somewhere even if it is their turn? Can I get to the front of the taxi line, look down it, and demand to be taken by the first "all inclusive" cab available, even if it is ten cabs down? Can I do that since I find "offensive" the policy that led to the lights being installed in the first place? If I do this, what will the reaction of the affected drivers be? Of the dispatcher? Of the public?

It is time to state something so central to the modern experience of a free people that we should never need reminding. Alas, it seems that we do, and so I now offer it here for the first - but I'm sure not the last - time on this blog:

There is no right not to be offended.

You read past that too quickly. Slow down. Try it again, and really let it sink in this time:

There is no right not to be offended.

Your rights stop right when they run into mine, and I've been known to be offensive from time to time. Democracy, freedom, and the market place of ideas - there is nothing in there that says you can't be offended. The great ideas, the strong ideas, the true ideas - those survive quite nicely in an environment that permits and encourages dissent, even mockery. The best among them even thrive.

Those ideas or people that can't handle the heat, that need special protection from competition like an antiquated industry of a bygone era, that are so unsure of their own veracity that they must not set eyes upon the opposition - well, you probably know how I feel about those.

Oh, and the next time I am in Minneapolis, I'm getting into a cab that takes me regardless of what I'm carrying. I'll call it a Freedom Cab, and I'll be getting in it whether there's a bottle of wine in my suitcase or not. I hope you do the same.


Anonymous said...

Hey Rob. Interesting post. The key issue here is that the cab industry is regulated. There is no reason for regulation of this industry other than the fact that it creates a legal monopoly which benefits cab companies. (to be precise, regulation of the industry was a one-time wealth transfer to the holders of medallions - current companies and drivers aren't beneficiaries because they have to buy medallions) Anyway, we would be far better off if the industry was totally unregulated. Drives could chose not to pick up fares carrying alcohol, and I could choose not to use those drivers. Government regulation is the source of the problem.


sperk said...

So, how do you feel about pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for morning-after birth control?