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Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Watching Bureaucratic Busybodies Harass Artists Filming a Shot in NYC Taught Me an Important Lesson about Rent Seeking

Individual rights to utilize public spaces should not be contingent on whether they’re being used to generate profit.

Image Credit: Jack Nicastro

The day was picture-perfect; I was entranced by Rand’s The Fountainhead, my brother by Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Rays of sun streamed through the clear sky and glinted off the iridescent skyscrapers of the Financial District across the East River to illuminate the pages.

In the periphery, I was vaguely aware of two professional videographers tinkering with a tripod attached to an expensive-looking video camera. Understandably, they were keen to capture the splendor of lower Manhattan on such a crisp fall day. The day was September 3, to be exact—only one day after the canonical beginning of Atlas Shrugged (yes, I fancy myself an Objectivist). I didn’t notice them further; there was no need to do so. My brother and I were peacefully reading, and they were unobtrusively filming in a public park.

A park monitor was of a different mind. Her golf cart with “Brooklyn Bridge PARK” emblazoned in sky blue on its hood screeched to a halt. In that one act alone, the monitor created a much greater negative externality than the videographers did all morning. I lifted my eyes and trained my ears on the conversation happening not even twenty feet from me.

PM (Park Monitor): “Excuse me. Hi. Do you have a permit to film here? Are you filming professionally?”

V (Videographer): “No. We do not have a permit and we’re not filming professionally.”

This last part was a bold-faced lie, I found out later.

PM: “Oh, really? What are you filming and for what purpose?”

V: “We’re shooting the Manhattan skyline for a film project. We’re art students. Is that OK?”

PM: “That should be fine. Just make sure you’re not blocking any walkways and—do you have more equipment or just the tripod?”

V: “Just the tripod.”

PM: “OK. So long as it’s just the tripod and you stay out of walkways, you’re fine.”

V: “Thanks.”

A similar conversation with a second park monitor happened maybe seven minutes later. It only ended when the second monitor called the first and was told to stand down.

While the dialogue lasted no more than three minutes on each occasion, the implications were ridiculous, unfounded, and infuriating. The first outrage is that the line of questioning hung on whether or not the videographers were being paid to record. The irrelevance of this fact to the safety of passersby unabashedly reveals the rent-seeking motive animating the state’s behavior.

The second is that the men had no right to privacy; despite behaving completely peacefully in a public space, they were compelled to explain what they were doing. The third is that, had they answered that they were filming professionally, they would be forced to pay a fee for… what? For freely producing value at zero expense to the taxpayer for someone with whom they had voluntarily contracted.

More than a little miffed, I approached one of the videographers who was not busy producing value at that precise moment. Out of consideration for the kind gentleman, I will not name him and have pixelated the photo of him and his partner and their equipment. Who knows? If the park monitors read this, they might try to steal the videographers’ hard-earned money retrospectively (if I get paid for publishing this article, including the photos I took, would I also be subject to a fine?). Paraphrasing the exchange, it went something like this:

J (Jack Nicastro): “Excuse me. I just saw what happened. I was wondering if you could tell me what would have happened if, hypothetically, you were filming professionally.”

V (Videographer): “Sure. We would have had to pay for a $1000 dollar shooting permit and $150 an hour for a park monitor, depending on what kind of equipment we had… In Times Square, you need to get permission from Film NY. They charge you $150-250 for a low impact filming permit, up to $10,000 for higher impact filming, mandate workers’ compensation insurance, approximately $2-5M of liability insurance, a grid monitor and, if you’re using drones to capture footage, a fire marshal, as well as a police officer, sometimes two, and, at the end of all of that, they can also charge for incidentals.”

A little incredulous that the regulatory state I knew existed abstractly was being explained to me in real-time by someone who had to deal with it in real life, I struggled to keep my composure. Didn’t this man know he was being robbed by brigands that could have been ripped straight out of the Rand novel in my hand!? Instead, I asked:

J: “That sounds like it makes your job a lot more expensive to next-to-impossible.”

V: “Yeah. It can be a hassle.”

J: “What are the reasons they provide for all of the fees?”

V: “Well, sometimes they really are necessary; if we’re using heavy equipment like camera dollies and boom mics in busy places, someone could get hurt if we don’t have traffic redirected.”

J: “Oh, that makes sense, actually. Do you think that reasoning applies to those park monitors just now?”

V: “No. They’re just trying to get money from us. But the New York City park monitors aren’t that bad. In LA, we were shooting next to a homeless encampment and, as soon as we put down our tripod, a cop approached us to ask if we had a safety permit to use a tripod in public.”

J: “You’re kidding…”

V: “No! And, you know what’s funny about it? They don’t bother the homeless who are actually getting in people’s way, blocking the sidewalks, and doing unsafe things because they have no money. They see us, our fancy equipment, and are immediately on our cases because they think we have money for them to take.”

J: “That camera does look expensive!”

V: “It’s rented…”

The conversation went on for about ten more minutes but by this point the takeaway was clear: the regulatory state exists almost entirely to seek rents anywhere and everywhere it can. Even from freelance immigrant videographers with rented equipment videotaping the New York City skyline in the corner of an empty park at 9AM on a beautiful Saturday morning.

  • Jack Nicastro is a fellow with FEE's Henry Hazlitt Project for Educational Journalism. He is a student at Dartmouth College majoring in Economics and minoring in Philosophy. At school, Jack is a senior correspondent for the Dartmouth Review, the president of the Dartmouth Libertarians, and co-chair of the Political Economy Project Student Leadership Council. Outside of school, Jack is a regional coordinator for Students For Liberty.

    Follow him on Twitter and Substack.