Bootleggers and Baptists is a concept put forth by regulatory economist Bruce Yandle, derived from the observation that regulations are supported both by groups that want the ostensible purpose of the regulation, and by groups that profit from undermining that purpose.
For much of the 20th century, Baptists and other evangelical Christians were prominent in political activism for Sunday closing laws restricting the sale of alcohol. Bootleggers sold alcohol illegally, and got more business if legal sales were restricted. Yandle wrote that "Such a coalition makes it easier for politicians to favor both groups. ... the Baptists lower the costs of favor-seeking for the bootleggers, because politicians can pose as being motivated purely by the public interest even while they promote the interests of well-funded businesses. ... [Baptists] take the moral high ground, while the bootleggers persuade the politicians quietly, behind closed doors."
The mainstream economic theory of regulation treats politicians and administrators as brokers among interest groups. Bootleggers and Baptists is a specific idea in the subfield of regulatory economics that attempts to predict which interest groups will succeed in obtaining rules they favor. It holds that coalitions of opposing interests that can agree on a common rule will be more successful than one-sided groups.
Baptists do not merely agitate for legislation, they help monitor and enforce it (a law against Sunday alcohol sales without significant public support would likely be ignored, or be evaded through bribery of enforcement officers). Thus bootleggers and Baptists is not just an academic restatement of the common political accusation that shadowy for-profit interests are hiding behind public-interest groups to fund deceptive legislation. It is a rational theory to explain relative success among types of coalitions.
Another part of the theory is that bootleggers and Baptists produce suboptimal legislation. Although both groups are satisfied with the outcome, broader society would be better off either with no legislation or different legislation. For example, a surtax on Sunday alcohol sales could reduce Sunday alcohol consumption as much as making it illegal. Instead of enriching bootleggers and imposing policing costs, the surtax could raise money to be spent on, say, property tax exemptions for churches and alcoholism treatment programs. Moreover, such a program could be balanced to reflect the religious beliefs and drinking habits of everyone, not just certain groups. From the religious point of the view, the bootleggers have not been cut out of the deal, the government has become the bootlegger.
Although the bootleggers and Baptists story has become a standard idea in regulatory economics, it has not been systematically validated as an empirical proposition. It is a catch-phrase useful in analyzing regulatory coalitions rather than an accepted principle of economics.
1) In 2015, liquor stores in the "wet counties" of Arkansas allied with local religious leaders to oppose statewide legalization of alcohol sales. Where the religious groups were opposed on moral grounds, the liquor stores were concerned over the potential loss of customers if rival stores were permitted to open in the "dry" counties of the state.
2) Willie Morris, the editor of Harper's Magazine in the 1960s, published a memoir of growing up in Mississippi. He wrote:
Mississippi was a dry state, one of the last in America, but its dryness was merely academic, a gesture to the preachers and the churches. My father would say that the only difference between Mississippi and its neighbor Tennessee, which was wet, was that in Tennessee a man could not buy liquor on Sunday. The Mississippi bootleggers, who theoretically operated "grocery stores," with ten or twelve cans of sardines and a few boxes of crackers for sale, stayed open at all hours, and would sell to anyone regardless of age or race. My father could work himself into a mild frenzy talking about this state of affairs; Mississippi, he would say, was the poorest state in the union, and in some ways the worst, and here it was depriving itself of tax money because the people who listened to the preachers did not have the common sense to understand what was going on. Every so often there would be a vote to determine whether liquor should be made legal. Then, for weeks before, the town would be filled with feverish campaign activity. People would quote the old saying, "As long as the people of Mississippi can stagger to the polls, they'll vote dry." A handful of people would come right out and say that liquor should be made legal, so that the bootleggers and the sheriffs would not be able to make all the money, and because the state legislature's "black-market tax" on whiskey, a pittance of a tax that actually contradicted the state constitution, was a shameful deceit. But these voices were few, and most of the campaigning was done by the preachers and the church groups. In their sermons the preachers would talk about the dangers of alcoholism, and the shame of all the liquor ads along the highways in Tennessee and Louisiana, and the temptations this offered the young people. Two or three weeks before the vote, the churches would hand out bumper stickers to put on cars; in big red letters they said, "For the sake of my family, vote dry." An older boy, the son of one of the most prosperous bootleggers, drove around town in a new Buick, with three of those bumper stickers plastered on front and back: "For the sake of my family, vote dry."— Morris, Willie, North Toward Home (1967)
3) In a 1952 speech by Noah S. "Soggy" Sweat, Jr., a young lawmaker from the U.S. state of Mississippi, on the subject of whether Mississippi should continue to prohibit (which it did until 1966) or finally legalize alcoholic beverages, Sweat said:
My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:
If when you say whiskey you mean the devil's brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.
But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life's great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.
This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.— Safire, William, Safire's Political Dictionary (2008)
Bootleggers and Baptists has been invoked to explain nearly every political alliance for regulation in the United States in the last 30 years including the Clean Air Act, interstate trucking, state liquor stores, the Pure Food and Drug Act, environmental policy, regulation of genetically modified organisms, the North American Free Trade Agreement, environmental politics, gambling legislation, blood donation, wine regulation, and the tobacco settlement.
Legislation and treaties to reduce global warming often command support of both polluting countries and environmentalists. Yandle and Buck argue that a similar phenomenon took place in the battle over the Kyoto Protocol, where the "Baptist" environmental groups provided moral support while "bootlegger" corporations and nations worked in the background to seek economic advantages over their rivals.
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- See also: Thomas, Diana W.; Simmons, Randy T.; Yonk, Ryan M. (Winter 2011). "Bootleggers, Baptists, and political entrepreneurs: key players in the rational game and morality play of regulatory politics". The Independent Review. 15 (3): 367–381. Pdf.
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