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Own Your City

Austin, Texas, as you’ve probably heard, is a pretty fun town that lots of people like. Washington, DC by contrast certainly has its defenders and apologists, but isn’t generally viewed in the same light. And while I don’t necessarily see the gap as quite as big as most folks seem to (to this born-and-raised New Yorker, one’s much greater ability to get around DC without a car is a big consideration) the conventional wisdom isn’t far from the truth here. But one thing I always find extremely frustrating about talk about how one town is awesome and another sucks is that even though folks spend a lot of time talking about such matters, they spend exceedingly little time trying to understand the actual reasons that places differ and things that could be done to change them.

As an example, Friday night I took in a movie at the famous Alamo Draft House Cinema where, among other things, a server comes and brings you food and beer orders as you watch. It’s totally awesome. But the failure of such a theater to exist in DC doesn’t come about because of some stubborn DC unwillingness to open anything cool, it comes about in large part because the regulatory hurdles facing someone who wanted to open such an establishment would be gargantuan. And movie theaters aside DC would, in general, have more bars that feature nice outdoor areas (a) easier to get a license to open a bar, and (b) easier to get a license to establish outdoor tables.

A relatively strict licensing regime keeps the number of drinking establishments relatively low. That reduces one’s set of options. But beyond that, it makes for a less competitive environment with higher prices and less effort going into making an establishment appealing. Laxer licensing regimes and more liberal zoning policies about where you can open retail would produce lower prices and more options. To make that observation is to begin rather than to end the argument about whether we should prefer the “plentiful, cheap bars” equilibrium to the “rare, expensive bars” equilibrium. But the point is that instead of just vaguely complaining about this or that aspect of the place where they live, or musing about moving elsewhere, it would serve people well to educate themselves about policy in their own communities and make things better. When we don’t do that, the policy just gets set by incumbent interest groups whose main concern is to block competition rather than build a livable community.

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