The Politics, Culture, and Economics of Pubs

Why doesn't the U.S. have a British-style pub scene?

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Your typical blogger loves three things perhaps above all else: spirited debate, wonky analysis, and rivers of beer. So it shouldn't be too surprising that the political blogosphere, including here at The Atlantic, has become recently consumed with debating and analyzing the question of why the U.S. doesn't have an England-like pub culture. Here's what they're saying. Cheers!

London, like cities and towns across the British Isles, is filled with pubs. They vary in type, quality, and clientele. I was very lucky this time around to find a near-perfect gastropub just a five minute walk from my flat. It was quiet and well-maintained with a great menu, and while there were always people there, there was also always a free seat. Kids were welcome during the day, as were dogs. Every time I went I thought to myself how great it would be to have such a place close by back in Washington. And every time I thought that, I immediately reminded myself that such a place, back in Washington, would be perpetually packed and fairly unpleasant. In the Washington area, you can’t have a place that’s both really good and quiet in a neighborhood-y sort of way. That's largely because it’s very difficult to open new bars.
  • Local Communities Have Too Much Power  Think Progress' Matthew Yglesias notes that, in the U.S., local residents control who can be awarded a new liquor licenses. That skews incentives away from allowing pubs.
The bigger question here is about levels of governance. Insofar as you empower residents of my building in DC to make the decision, we will attempt to regulate the food service establishments on our block so as to minimize late-night noise. After all, the service sector jobs lost in the process aren’t the jobs that we do while as homeowners we bear the losses of reduced property values on the block. And to simply disempower us, as a block, would be arbitrary and unfair. But empowering each and every block leads to highly inefficient outcomes with the bulk of the pain felt by low-income people and there’s no obvious reason of justice to think this kind of hyper-local empowerment is more legitimate than taking a broader view would be.
  • This Makes Our Bars Crowded and Noisy  That, in turn, makes it hard to open new bars, and makes the whole thing even worse, The Atlantic's Megan McArdle writes. There are fewer bars per local resident, which makes each bar more crowded, which makes them "noticeably more unpleasant for the neighbors, as well as the customers. Which in turn causes residents to fight like hell to keep out any business that might attract a late-night crowd."
  • Culture Also Plays a Role  The Economist's Matthew Steinglass examines "that diffuse and confusing beast we call culture." He says the different nightlife cultures in London, New York, and DC are "irreducible" to something as simple as regulatory policy. For example, "The regulatory environment in London doesn't do much to explain why, when you walk through Southwark on a winter's evening at 6:30pm with the thermometer tipping 0 degrees centigrade, you see crowds of men and women in long dark coats standing on the sidewalk sipping pints of bitter." He concludes: "I think the pubs in London will still be very different from bars in Washington in 50 years, even if Washington decides to adopt the regulatory arsenal of London, right down to closing time"
  • Shows How Bad Regulation Ruins Everything  "In DC, regulatory decisions are very clearly driving what the bar culture looks like." The Atlantic's Megan McArdle laments. She describes that bar culture in detail. For example: "The only people who can bear to be in [the bars] are the people who will tolerate any conditions, including those of veal calves, if only they can endure them while holding a drink." Her conclusion: "in DC, regulation (and population pressure) clearly is the driving factor behind the lack of cozy, comfortable spots to get a bite and a beer."
  • Sadly, Many London Pubs Are Closing, a reader relates to The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan: "Pubs have been closing at an alarming rate all over the UK.  Companies that own pubs were expected to be good investments during the recession as people gave up on more expensive forms of entertainment, but in fact pubs did terribly. There are still plenty of pubs and plenty of people going to them, but the old corner-pub-as-social-center model seems to be breaking down."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.