Baptists and bootleggers

If you google the phrase “Baptists and bootleggers,” one of the items that will invariably pop up is this entry in Wikipedia (edited by me for clarity; emphasis added; footnotes and hyperlinks omitted): “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 [supported] Sunday closing laws restricting the sale of alcohol. Bootleggers sold alcohol illegally, and got more business if legal sales were restricted.”

Or in the eloquent words of Yandle and a colleague (2001), “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.” Also, before proceeding, here is a link to Professor Yandle’s original 1983 essay on the subject of Baptists and bootleggers, and here is a link to a follow-up article published in 1999.

As it happens, I was first introduced to this idea in law school by Professor Robert Ellickson and then re-introduced to it many years later by my colleague and friend Todd Zywicki during a two-week crash course in law and economics in Colorado that I attended in 2013. (Shout out to the Law & Economics Center (LEC) at George Mason University for inviting me to attend this excellent summer seminar.) If you think about it, Professor Yandle’s theory has to be one of the most powerful scholarly ideas of the late 20th Century, for it helps to explain almost all forms of economic legislation and regulation. I am thus shocked and surprised that I have not blogged about this idea until today, but I am not here to point fingers (especially at myself) or to rehash an old but powerful theory.

Instead, I am here to restate a question my philosophical friend and fellow blogger Peter Clark recently posed on his excellent “Inverted Logic” blog: what if the moralizing “Baptists” and the rent-seeking “bootleggers” are the same person or group? Clark describes the origins of his “dual-actor” theory here, and he develops the idea further here in The Journal of Brief Ideas. For my part, one of the reasons I find Clark’s dual-actor hypothesis so persuasive is that often a regulated corporation or other large rent-seeking actor will have many stakeholders, and the interests and motivations of these will often diverge among the familiar Baptist and bootlegger lines. So, kudos to Clark and the dual-actor theory!

The Legacy of Bruce Yandle | Mercatus Center: F. A. Hayek Program

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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2 Responses to Baptists and bootleggers

  1. Enrique, I feel honored by your treatment of the Dual-Actor hypothesis. I never thought such a profound realization could come from such an ordinary and run-of-the-mill encounter.

    I would encourage everyone to try to find meaningful observations in the mundane aspects of day-to-day life. This way we not only impart more meaning in our lives, but also bring many of these theories to life. No longer confined to static models or obscure references read by only a few specialists.

    Its a privileged and an honor to be recognized for bring life to a theory that is vibrant, but is relatively unknown outside of public choice scholars and enthusiasts.

    For those unacquainted with Public Choice, it is a lot a fun once you get creative with applying the concepts in novel ways.

    Thank you for your encouragement,

    Peter.

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