Here's one for the Guinness World Records people: Two New York City taxi medallions were sold last month for $1 million apiece. That's the highest price ever paid for the right to operate a car as a taxicab in The City That Never Sleeps. It's also an expensive lesson in the harm caused to consumers and would-be entrepreneurs by overregulation and the strangling of competition.
By law, every cab in New York has to have an official medallion -- the numbered metal plate nailed to the hood -- but the number of medallions is fixed at 13,237. When the city first issued taxi medallions in the 1930s, they cost $10 each. But before long the demand for taxi ownership had outstripped the limited supply of medallions. Since City Hall wasn't issuing new ones, the only way to get a medallion was to buy one from an existing owner. Over time the value of those metal tags went through the stratosphere.
In the years after World War II, a New York City taxi medallion could be had for $2,500. By the mid-1970s the going price was $50,000. In 1985, when a medallion changed hands for $100,000, it made the front page of The New York Times. That sale was arranged by a "taxi financing specialist" named Nat Goldbetter, a one-time cabdriver who discovered he could make a better living arranging medallion sales on the secondary market. By coincidence, it was Goldbetter who arranged the sale of the million-dollar medallions last month, landing him again on Page 1. "Nobody ever thought the medallion would get to this point," he marveled.
In a rational market, Goldbetter's industry wouldn't even exist. A taxi medallion, after all, has no intrinsic value -- it is merely the government's permission to use a car to transport passengers for a fee. Acquiring a medallion isn't like acquiring a dental practice or some other going concern: It doesn't come with a built-in customer base or first dibs on popular routes. It doesn't include the price of gas or insurance, let alone a car. A medallion represents nothing but official approval to be in the cab business. No one has to invest a fortune to get the government's OK to sell tacos or put out a newspaper or practice podiatry. Why should anyone have to invest a fortune -- or hire a "taxi financing specialist" -- to get the government's OK to own a cab?