Happy Hour Opponents vs. Alcoholic Beverage Commission

Little did I know about the criminals in our midst. That kind waitress who comped us a bottle of wine with dinner a few months back? A violator of Massachusetts’ “Happy Hour” regulations.

Those regulations specifically ban all free drinks and varying the price of alcoholic drinks at any point during a calendar week. Unlike many other states where drink specials (usually in the early evening) are used to attract customers, Massachusetts banned the practice during the Dukakis administration, citing public safety concerns.

The debate about Happy Hour re-opened as part of the casino discussion. Casino operators are permitted to give out free drinks, and concerns grew that this would disadvantage bar and restaurant owners.

So, it was somewhat surprising that this week’s hearing on the subject appeared to be dominated by representatives from those industries, opposing any change in the regulation. It’s actually not that hard to understand—with a relatively fixed number of liquor licenses, regulations that limit price competition might be viewed as a good thing by some.

But that way of thinking leads us quickly down the slippery slope: why not mandate minimum prices?

For some reason, this sector of the economy has an affinity for regulatory barriers—torturous permitting processes, limited liquor licenses (and occasionally legally dubious practices), and the Happy Hour ban.

Yet, if the practical experience with the redevelopment of town centers and Boston’s Main Streets program has taught us anything, it’s that multiple restaurants and bars (where there is actual competition on price, service, style, etc.) create a healthier, more robust dining and entertainment economy. It isn’t, and it shouldn’t be the zero sum game that operators believe it is.