Sunday, May 21, 2006

Liquor licenses

David Rabin and Robert Bookman wrote an excellent op-ed in the N.Y. Region Opinion section of today's New York Times. They argue that the state legislature's plans to severely limit new liquor licenses will hurt the fastest growing industry in the city, which are related to hospitality and night life.

They link the problem primarily to noise complaints. Since the smoking ban was implemented in 2003, noise complaints have gone up supposedly because of additional people out on the street smoking late at night. Also, the implementation of the city's 311 line allows for residents to easily lodge anonymous noise complaints, sometimes probably frivolously.

I suspect there is a more sinister plot here: even in New York, some people are really, really offended by other people having fun. Bar owners often try to be respectful, and even do a lot for their communities that people don't really give them credit for. After other shops close, it's bartenders, deli owners, and to a lesser extent patrons and the odd resident who are watching the street—afterall, who wants trouble less than an owner of a business? Some people, especially college students often from out of the city, tend to not handle themselves very well and they tend to get loud when they drink. But being overly-prohibitive, to the point of no longer being willing to level with the owners of the businesses, leads to authoritarian behavior the likes of which you see from Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other anti-alcohol groups: on the face, they want claim to want something that sounds really good—peace and quiet, less violence, less drunk driving—but in the end they try to go way too far to impose their morality on others. Problems get addressed in terms of:
  • preventing drinking outright, as drinking easily makes some people intoxicated, which is in and of itself evil;
  • limiting access to alcohol because it leads to lower inhibitions, which leads to sex
  • state limits on liberty, rather than family and community consensus (this is very notable with MADD and its rabid support of preventing under-21 consumption)
None of that does anything to address dangerous behavior, of course. People who are inclined to lose their inhibitions and have sex are probably going to find a way to do so. Naturally, none of that means that bartenders shouldn't be expected to use their judgement and cut people off when they feel the situation is getting out of control.

In the end, that doesn't mean that a balance shouldn't be struck between residents' peace and bars' profits. New York City is not like Las Vegas and other new growth cities, where night life takes place in designated strips that residents have to drive to and visitors have (probably well-soundproofed) hotels to stay in. Clubs, bars, and restaurants in New York co-exist next to residential housing, at times buildings that have thousands of people in them. However, residents and lawmakers rarely want to negotiate. Some of the problems related to the smoking ban might have been alleviated by advanced filtering technologies. Rabin and Bookmen mentioned many compromises that liquor-related industries tried to make with lawmakers, the police, and resident groups. None came to pass.

One reasonable solution to this problem might be taking away the anonymous nature of 311. We expect our governments to be transparent, but we don't seem to have any such expectation with people who use government agencies against private agencies. If I call 911, and report a robbery that's not happening, my number can be traced, and I can be charged with reporting a frivolous complaint. But if a resident makes a frivolous report on a bar to 311, there is no recourse, even if they do it again and again.

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