October 28, 2010 9:52AM

Bootleggers & Baptists, Sugary Soda Edition

Here’s a poor, unsuccessful letter that impressed the relevant New York Times reporters, but not their editorial overlords:

It may seem counter‐​intuitive that bleeding‐​heart anti‐​hunger groups and “Big Food and Big Beverage” would ally to oppose Mayor Bloomberg’s request to prevent New Yorkers from using food stamps to purchase sugary sodas [“Unlikely Allies in Food Stamp Debate,” October 16]. Yet the “bootleggers and Baptists” theory of regulation explains that this “strange bedfellows” phenomenon is actually the norm, rather than the exception.


Most laws have two types of supporters: the true believers and those who benefit financially. Baptists don’t want you drinking on the Lord ’s Day, for example, while bootleggers profit from the above‐​market prices that Blue Laws enable them to charge on Sundays. Consequently, both groups support politicians who support Blue Laws.


Baptists‐​and‐​bootleggers coalitions underlie almost all government activities. Defense spending: (neo)conservatives and defense contractors. President Obama’s new health care law: the political left and the health care and insurance industries. Ethanol subsidies: environmentalists and agribusiness. Education: egalitarians and teachers’ unions. The list goes on.


It’s easier to illustrate the theory (and sexier) when the bootleggers are non‐​believers who cynically manipulate government solely for their own gain. Yet one can be both a Baptist and a bootlegger. The Coca‐​Cola Company may sincerely believe that society benefits when the government subsidizes sugary sodas for poor people. Even so, a bootlegger‐​cum‐​Baptist can still rip off taxpayers.

This morning, NPR reported on another bootleggers‐​and‐​Baptists coalition: anti‐​immigration zealots and the prison industry.