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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

In the Public Interest, But Not the Public Domain

This morning, NPR ran a story about an effort to preserve pubs in the UK:
The British pub is as much a part of the fabric of the United Kingdom as fish and chips and the queen, but each year hundreds close their doors for good. The reasons include the high price of beer, more people drinking at home and rising land prices. Now — in an apparent first — the London borough of Wandsworth has designated 120 pubs for protection, requiring owners who want to transform them into apartments or supermarkets to get local government approval first.
This is not going to be another demise-of-the-British-pub posts, partly because "demise of the British pub" articles have been a going concern since the first Bush presidency. In fact, I recall but cannot find a post/article that pointed out these articles have actually been popular for centuries. It seems the English pub is always endangered.

No, what it made me think of was something related: the demise of the independent brewery.

Since 2011, when AB InBev bought Goose Island, something like 15 breweries have been purchased by large companies. That's compares with the nearly 5000 that remain independent. And yet, we do harbor a gnawing worry that independence is in danger. Part of this is because we don't relate to pubs and breweries the way we relate to, say, iPhones and soda brands. The part of that NPR piece that really crystallized it was this comment by Jonathan Cook, deputy leader of the Wandsworth Council:
"What we're saying is, 'Well, hang on a minute — we have an interest here as well. The community values the pub and you've got to factor that into the equation,'" says Cook.
We don't relate to pubs as interchangeable service-providers any more than we relate to breweries as random widget-makers. In our minds, they're something of a public trust. The Councilman says it more baldly than most, but there's a piece of this thinking that goes into every angry comment on a Facebook post announcing the latest buy-out.

Pubs and breweries, for their part, strongly encourage this thinking. What business would fail to capitalize on this rare emotional connection customers have to their favorite brand/establishment? We want to have connections to these entities. But, as Martyn Cornell pointed out when he addressed this issue of restricting pub sales two years ago, as much as they may be in the public interest, they're not actually in the public domain:
The whole idea that pubs need special protection is nonsense, anyway, as I have frequently argued. Pubs are not sacred. The rights of pubgoers do not trump the rights of property owners. The disappearance of any pub is not the same as, eg, the disappearance of a Saxon church. Pubs are, and have always been, “churned” all the time: one closes, another one opens. (It may surprise you to learn that JD Wetherspoon has closed more than 100 of the pubs it has opened over the years). If a pub is making less money for its owner than it would under another use, the owner must have the right to maximise their income. If a pub closes, and a community feels it needs a pub, let someone open a new pub, in a more viable site with fewer overheads. 
I am perhaps more sentimental than Martyn. When an old pub closes to make way for a convenience store or fast-casual restaurant, I feel the poorer. Were Deschutes or Sierra Nevada or Breakside or Other Half to sell to ABI, I would feel the poorer. As a guy interested in policy, I'm with Martyn that efforts to restrict the sale of private businesses is bad public policy. It does not necessarily follow that I'm happy to see the churn.

I participate in the false sense that I somehow have a piece of the pubs and breweries I like, as do they, and I will continue to do so because it's a more pleasant way to live. But it's good to acknowledge from time to time how silly this is of me.


  1. I'm in England right now, soon to head for Scotland, and there are still plenty of pubs. Rumors of their demise are greatly exaggerated.

  2. Don't even SAY Breakside. Shudder.