Proposition 19, Bootleggers, and Baptists

It was nearly 30 years ago that Bruce Yandle penned his influential “Bootleggers and Baptists” essay. The unintuitive thesis is that some government interventions endure because of an unusual (and often unrecognized) agreement between two distinct groups. On the one hand are those who want to see the intervention continue for moral reasons (he calls them “Baptists” in reference to the Baptists who supported the prohibition of alcohol). On the other, are those who benefit from the artificially high price that results from prohibition (he calls them bootleggers).

NPR reports today that California’s Proposition 19—which would legalize and regulate marijuana for recreational use—has generated some unlikely political alliances. As Yandle would predict, many police and mothers are against decriminalization. Surprisling, however, some moms are for it. Skyla Chapman, for one, argues:

When it’s regulated, then it’s no longer in the drug dealers’ hands. It’s in respectable businesses’ hands. They’ll card or ID you.

Consistent with Yandle’s thesis, some stoners are skeptical of decriminalization. They worry that the regulations may be more burdensome than the current regime which permits pot use for medical purposes. They also worry that the decriminalized price will plummet, hurting current sellers. One seller, (appropriately) named Jay, opposes Prop 19. Jay skirts the current law, selling to people for recreational as well as medical use. He worries:

Everyone’s really scared of the prices going down….We all have invested money here, we all live here. I have a daughter here, my wife’s a teacher. Everyone’s scared because we don’t know what the prices are going to be. Already, the prices have gone down and down. It’s harder to sell it.

The story illustrates an important point that my progressive friends rarely acknowledge. Many of them would like to think of regulation as a sort of brake system on the Indy-car that is the market. They imagine prudent well-informed regulators applying the brakes when the cars get going too fast, saving them from veering off the road.

Seen through the bootleggers and Baptists model, however, the story is different. Under this model, cheaters (Bootleggers) actually support the application of the braking system. They, of course, dismantle their own brakes so that regulators can’t apply them. But they are all-too-happy to see the brakes applied to their competitors’ cars. And like the current sellers of pot, they are disapointed to see the brakes removed.