No-Sin Zone

Unlike smoking and smut, liquor is tougher to crack down on, because it’s harder to convi
nce people that only scumbags do it. But that’s not to say the city leaders haven’t tried. In 2004, Menino blamed the repeal of the state ban on Sunday liquor sales—which he’d hotly opposed when it came up the year before—for the student rioting that followed the Pats’ Super Bowl win. Not even two years later, he leaned on the licensing board to jam through a rule requiring the city’s package store owners to furnish the cops with the name and address of anyone buying a keg of beer. The measure was meant to stop college kids from wreaking havoc, but it’s easy to see the paternalistic sentiment shot through it. Casting suspicion on students is fine, because they’re students and have been known to get up to no good. As for the nonstudent keg-buying population, well, they’re probably up to no good, either—after all, what kind of low-class grownup buys beer by the barrel?—so it’s okay to treat them like potential criminals.

A similar strain of alcohol hatred surfaced earlier this year, when City Hall put the hammer down on nightclubs that offered VIP seating with the purchase of a bottle of high-end liquor, often for several hundred dollars. The city’s legal position was that this so-called bottle service violated the loathsome happy-hour law—a neat trick, since that law forbids establishments from selling alcohol at a discount, not a 1,000 percent markup. Further belying the city’s logic was the finger-wagging by Dan Pokaski, head of the Boston Society for the Suppression of Intemperance, also known as the Boston Licensing Board: "The city of Boston has a lot more to offer than just getting people inebriated. If all they can offer their clientele is just swilling alcohol, then perhaps they shouldn’t be in business."

Interestingly, Menino had lobbied the state not all that long before to issue new beer and wine licenses to city restaurants, essentially saying they must be able to serve alcohol if they’re to succeed. This may seem like hypocrisy, but it’s not. In Boston, alcohol is categorically bad, unless it’s paired with a $38 plate of pan-seared mahi mahi—then it’s absolutely critical to our economic future. Save for bottle-service libertines, we tend to make fewer moral demands on people when they have discretionary income.

This presumably is why Menino’s distaste for vice didn’t apply to Governor Patrick’s casino plan, which the mayor supported with every fiber of his being: Though gambling may have a strong track record of ruining families, it also possesses an unparalleled ability to convert all income into discretionary income, and discretionary income into a potential tax windfall for a cash-strapped city. The mayor would be a fool not to suspend moral judgment at the prospect of such a bonanza.