Classical Music As Tax

Imagine that the government required people to wear a nice suit in public spaces like sidewalks, airports, and parks. Or required a precise haircut (e.g., within the last three days). Or imagine that signs had to be most easily read in latin. Or that Mormon sermons were loudly broadcast. Such policies would reduce the rate of crime and related complaints in public spaces, by imposing higher costs on the sorts of people who commit crimes (and on many others). Is that a good enough reason to implement such policies? Now consider that some public spaces play classical music to push away undesirables:

The Port Authority is one of many public spaces across the country that uses classical music to help control vagrancy: to drive the homeless away. … [In] the mid-1980s … a 7-Eleven began playing music in the parking lot as a deterrent to the crowds of teenagers congregating there. Plenty of stores continue to use the technique. … In 2001, police in West Palm Beach, Fla., blasted Mozart and Beethoven on a crime-ridden street corner and saw incidents dwindle dramatically. In 2010, the transit authority in Portland, Ore., began playing classical music at light-rail stops, and calls to police dropped. When the London Underground started piping classical music into its stations in 2005, physical and verbal abuse by young people declined by 33 percent. … Some sources report that Barry Manilow is as effective as Mozart in driving away unwanted groups of teens. (more)

The basic question: when is it ok for the government to impose costs on some subset of people in public, because that subset contains a higher fraction of those who commit crimes? Should there be any limits on the types of people a government can favor in public spaces?

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  • rationalist

    when is it ok for the government to impose costs on some subset of people in public, because that subset contains a higher fraction of those who commit crimes

    If you use enough independent policies targeting different groups which contain a sufficiently high fraction of criminals, then in the limit as the number of policies becomes large and the negative effect of each one becomes small, a large cost is imposed on criminals and a vanishingly small one on noncriminals.

  • fmb

    Seems similar to many bright line tests: Is paying for a kidney inherently wrong, or an imperfect heuristic for certain bad outcomes that are hard to measure directly? What kind of tradeoffs in a bright-line prohibition are acceptable?

    Would it be okay to have a 2 stage jury trial to achieve a similar end? Instead of making murder against the law, make it against the law to be judged “likely to have murdered” by a jury held to a preponderance of the evidence (and non-unanimity) standard — call it “semi-convicted”. That first jury can’t put you in jail, but having passed their judgment, a 2nd jury could quite easily unanimously say, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant broke the law against being “semi-convicted”.

    It seems to me that all of these arguments (“classical music”, “bright-lines”, and “2-stage juries”) boil down to a tradeoff between the difficulty of discriminating perfectly vs making sure we prevent certain things even if some others get caught up inadvertently. But, I suspect that most would support the first 2 and object strongly to the 3rd.

  • rationalist

    Note also that sending people to prison has some false positive rate, so if we are going to complain about “imposing costs on some subset of people, because that subset contains a higher fraction of those who commit crimes” then we might consider freeing all convicted criminals…

  • Croft

    Your “basic” question is much too vague.

    The government (temporal politicians & bureaucrats) always imposes highly arbitrary costs on society– and upon complex subsets of society … within and away from ‘public spaces’. That’s what governments do… thru vast amounts of laws, rules, policies, regulations, taxes, subsidies, propaganda, police actions, etc.

    Your question of “Should there be any limits on the types of people a government can favor…” is the fundamental question of ‘government’ itself thru the ages.

    Should government favor a majority over the minority ? Who exactly is a “criminal” if the government has virtually unlimited power to define ‘criminal behavior’ ? What exactly is a ‘public space’ if the government is free to define that anyway they choose ?

    The ‘basic’ question needs refinement.

  • bryan willman

    and since people are not melted by music, why do we think these schemes will work if applied everywhere? so the teens left the 7-11 and went to dennys instead – the police now get to respond to complaints over a wider area – what has really been accomplished?

    • nelsonal

      Is it possible that crime is positively related with the size of the cluster of teens?

  • Chrisfs

    7-11 is hardly the government, so that example fails completely,
    If, as you suppose, criminals are mainly of a certain demographic, then would doing something to deter criminals automatically deter that demographic and the question is one of intent. Are they doing it to deter criminals or the larger demographic ?
    You also left out a quote in which the Police Chief stated it didn’t work. “In a 2011 article in the Huffington Post, the assistant police chief of West Palm Beach, Dennis Crispo, said of the program, which had been abandoned years before, “It really doesn’t have a lasting effect.””
    Perhaps all the walls should be painted black and with obscene graffiti painted by municipal workers ?

  • Omegaile

    I´m not convinced that the reason why this seemed to work is the high cost on a subgroup of the population.
    Actually I think it may have been due to subliminar messages like in blue light prevent suicide

  • Ely

    This seems similar to public smoking bans to me. People don’t seem to prefer unusual deterrents that might discourage smokers to come to public places; they opt for outright laws. There might be some sympathy signaling too. It’s somewhat more compassionate to drive a vagrant away with a music choice than to allow 7-11 to obtain a restraining order against the vagrant just on the grounds of not wanting the associated crime risk.

  • Did they realize that if this policy didn’t work, you would have a Clockwork Orange-type situation on your hands? (i.e. committing violent crime while classical music plays in the background)

    • Kevin Fischer

      It’s still rather Clockwork Orange in turning classical music into an aversive stimulus.

    • Why do you think a Clockwork Orange-type situation is bad? (Other than that the author wanted you to.)

  • Steve

    The teenagers and other “undesirables” had a choice to stay and hear the music, or go elsewhere. I see no coercion or force being applied here, just clever application of sounds to make sure everyone nearby is conducting business the establishments were meant for. Displacement of undesirables to other locations is fine by me, as those places could use similar tactics, perhaps the undesirables will choose to exit the region entirely, and someplace might actually welcome them.

  • Randaly

    An interesting variant on this is the Mosquito, a similar device that is both more annoying and selectively targets youths.

  • nyanonymous

    In my city (vancouver, BC) there are some places that play hip-hop to drive away old people.

    A funny reaction to the “play classical to drive away young people” idea.

  • Michael Wengler

    Wow. You are wondering when it is OK and I’m wondering what is the cleverest, lowest cost way of keeping people away that you would like kept away?

    I think its fair to say that if something has been built to facilitate passengers getting to trains and shoppers getting to products, that anything which lowers the costs of doing that on net is good. If the people scared away by classical music cut down more store sales or rail ticket sales than they cut policing costs or other security costs, then it would be a bad idea. If the other way, a good idea.

    I have sympathy for vagrants and homeless as people, but no sense that they need to have a “right” to be in any particular public space they choose at random anymore than they have a right to be sleeping in the living room of my house. (If you think they should be sleeping in the living room of your house, than I at least appreciate your consistency in thinking they should be in your train station too.)