Thursday, October 19, 2006

Church-State Hinterlands: I

Two recent church-state events are in the news. (One of them, in fact, was the news.) Both got me thinking about this invariably complex class of problems.

One involves the refusal of some Muslim cab drivers at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport to transport passengers who are carrying alcohol. This is apparently a completely misplaced interpretation of Islamic law, but in recounting the episode the anti-Islamist campaigner (and son of the Harvard historian, whom I quoted in this article, Richard Pipes) Daniel Pipes argues that it is another sign of creeping sharia, a refusal of Muslims to accommodate themselves to the beliefs and practices of the larger non-Muslim society around them. The normally sensible Dennis Prager somewhat more hysterically takes the same tack.

Critics of the behavior of the cabdrivers argued that passengerswill with alcohol were being discriminated against. This is misplaced; there is no right to ride in a particular cab in a free society. People of all religious beliefs, even very unusual ones, have a right to try to solicit business at a publicly operated cab stand. But the operative word is "try." The question is the terms under which the cab driver should be required to solicit for business.

The airport authority proposed that there be two lines – one for passengers with no alcohol and one for passengers with. This was acceptable to the drivers, but is unacceptable from an economic point of view. Presumably the line for drivers with alcohol will be shorter, and so they are being subsidized. Some drivers might even choose to buy alcohol when they otherwise would not do so to take advantage of the shorter line, which is an inefficient outcome resulting from a price distortion. If in fact the alcohol-free line will be shorter, the same effect occurs, only from the opposite direction; now people forgo buying wine or Jack Daniels at the duty-free shop when otherwise they would wish to.

Each cab driver with an unusual taste is imposing a negative externality by not only refusing to pick up a particular passenger, but by making everybody else in line wait longer while he disposes of the passenger. Suppose there are n people in line, k of whom are carrying alcohol. Each one waits whether he is carrying alcohol or not because of the cabdriver’s refusal. If each exchange between a customer and a passenger costs t in time expenses to both driver and every passenger in line, the cost of this decision when an alcohol-toting passengers at the front of the line is turned down is nt. Since we cannot set up separate lines so as not to subsidize particular tastes, either the driver’s or the passenger's (each driver carrying alcohol would pay kt instead of nt in economic costs for reasons having nothing to do with the social costs of that choice), another possibility is that the driver be sent to the back of the line. If he does so, there are n people in line and t in costs he faces for each driver in front of him in line, and so his total costs for indulging his preference are nt, which is exactly the cost we wish him to internalize. And so the efficient solution is probably the just solution – having all drivers compete on the same terms – as well. He is allowed to compete for business just like a driver without such preferences, but the costs of that preference are borne by him, as they should be.

I leave the second recent church-state dispute for another post.

4 Comments:

Blogger Knucklehead said...

Evan,

I believe you are off base with this:

Critics of the behavior of the cabdrivers argued that drivers [I presume you mean "passengers" here] with alcohol were being discriminated against. This is misplaced; there is no right to ride in a particular cab in a free society. People of all religious beliefs, even very unusual ones, have a right to try to solicit business at a publicly operated cab stand. But the operative word is "try." The question is the terms under which the cab driver should be required to solicit for business.

The taxi franchise is typically a licensed and regulated business. This is taken to something of an extreme at most airports. A passenger exiting an airport in need of transportation has a limited number of options, one of which is to take a taxi. If that is the option they select they normally exit to a particular place where they get in a managed queue of passengers who are doled out to a managed queue of taxis.

The taxi franchise at airports is not libertarian, laissez-faire economics.

We tend to badly overwork the word "right" in our society but a lawful traveller has something similar to a "right" to taxi service at airports. Conversely, IMHO, taxi drivers have no "right" to refuse service to a lawful traveller. By queuing up in the regulated airport line they are, I believe, agreeing to provide their service to any lawful patron.

When a driver determines that "lawful" is decided by the Koran they are altering the legal terms of their license to those of sharia.

Pipes (and Prager) may be hyperventilating but they seem otherwise correct to me. Taxi operators who are unwilling to carry passengers toting their little "duty-free" bag of booze should not line up at airports. In the legal sense this should, IMO, be decided in favor of the passengers. Drivers refusing to carry alcohol toting passengers should have their license revoked or, at least, their right to conduct their business at airports denied.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Knucklehead said...

BTW,

If the Two Queue Solution were implemented and it turned out that the Booze Bearing Queue was consistently shorter and quicker you can bet that enterprising travelers who frequently queue for cabs at that airport will not, in fact, purchase a bottle each and every time. They'll simply purchase one boxed bottle (or retrieve a box from their liquor cabinet) and keep the unfolded box in their briefcase for refolding at the appropriate moment.

9:27 AM  
Blogger Evan said...

When a driver determines that "lawful" is decided by the Koran they are altering the legal terms of their license to those of sharia.

That could be; the argument is not that they are not violating some contract, but that the contract itself is invalid. It seems to me that prohibiting the excessively devout Muslim from even trying to solicit business is unfair; but of course he should bear the consequences of his religious beliefs.

The passenger with a bottle will be picked up, probably very soon. (Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me at all if many of these drivers found their beliefs are not so compelling once they become a little more costly.) But he does not have a right to be picked up within a certain time period, nor do I think he has the (moral, not contractual) right to choose his cab, which is someone else's property. I might be amenable to requiring that all such cabs post signs on their roofs expressing their hostility to alcohol-laden passengers, speeding up the process. But I'm not sure.

They'll simply purchase one boxed bottle (or retrieve a box from their liquor cabinet) and keep the unfolded box in their briefcase for refolding at the appropriate moment.

I have to concede this point, although it simply means that the distortion is smaller, not that it doesn't exist.

2:24 PM  
Blogger Knucklehead said...

Evan,

I don't believe airport taxis "solicit" business. It isn't like they ride around the airport being hailed at random more or less the way it works around cities. And it isn't as if they get phoned up and dispatched where the person requesting the service could be informed of the restrictions and chose another service.

At (large) airports they drive up and get at the back of the queue.

It is this queueing for both taxis and passengers that renders this a sort of implied contractual arrangment. The passenger has an implied contract that when they are at the head of their queue the taxi at the head of its queue will transport them. Conversely the taxi has an implied contract that the the passengers at the head of the queue are "theirs" when the taxi reaches the head of the queue.

If Islamic taxi drivers don't want to carry passengers who are in possession of alcohol then they should not be allowed to exercise their license at the airport.

Let's try a different example. In my neck of the woods there are some fairly urbanized pockets where people don't own autos; especially the sections that are "downscale" economically. It is common to see people use taxis for transportation to grocery stores. It is also common for large liquor stores to be co-located with large groceries. Get your groceries and stop and pick up your bottle of wine or vodka or whatever on the way out (or vice versa).

It would be different thing than the airport example for a particular taxi company, or drivers within it, to make customers aware that restricted service is available; this driver will take you too the grocery but will not bring you back if you purchase alcohol or, if you purchase alcohol this driver will not bring you back home.

On the other hand, where does this stop? What if our shopper purchase pork chops? How is it the any of the driver's business what the passenger purchases and transports presuming no illegal or hazardous substances?

A taxi is a form of licensed public transportation. Can we have city bus drivers refusing to carry alcohol toting passengers because the driver is Muslem? If the driver is Catholic can they refuse to carry passengers who use birth control or are headed to an abortion clinic? How does the driver even have the right of discovery?

My own take on this is that the drivers should shut up and drive or find another line of work. What lawful passengers are carrying is none of their business.

3:16 PM  

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