Thursday, August 04, 2011

Sidewalk cafes

The Washington Post looks at attitudes towards sidewalk cafes back in the 1950s:
“I think Washington is just perfect the way it is,” socialite Gwen Cafritz told a reporter in 1959. “I don’t think the tempo in Washington is suited to sidewalk cafes. Nobody would have time to sit in them.” 
City officials raised myriad objections, as described in a Washington Post story at the time: Sidewalk cafes expose food to “windblown foreign matter,” creating a health hazard and attracting birds and rodents, the city’s public health director said; too many cafes would cause a “cessation” of pedestrian traffic, forcing walkers into the streets, where they would get run over, another official cautioned; and tables and chairs would interfere with the deployment of fire hoses, the fire chief warned.
But the strongest objection came from Deputy Police Chief Howard V. Covell, who described sidewalk cafes as “a potential source of disorder.”
Pedestrians might brush against patrons, resulting in a punch in the nose, he told the city commissioners. Pickpockets would proliferate, unable to resist easily reached pocketbooks. Finally, he said, “this type of operation would provide a favorable setting for ladies of easy virtue as they ply their trade up and down the street.”
A textbook example of status quo bias. We are used to what we know and have experienced, and convince ourselves that any deviation from it will be a turn for the worse. I would submit that one subset of status quo bias is one in favor of authoritarianism and regulation, such as with the sidewalk cafe example. We convince ourselves that absent existing rules and government strictures chaos would reign. Rarely, if ever, however does this prove to be the case.

This is another reason why a skeptical eye should be taken towards claims such as that the arts will disappear without government funding, that an end to government-run schools will result in a mass of uneducated youth (arguably what we already have) or that drug legalization will lead to rampant addiction and societal breakdown. 

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