Baptists and Bootleggers

If politics makes strange bedfellows, then the coalition of the Baptists and the bootleggers has to be one of the oddest. In the early part of the twentieth century, these two groups persuaded many states to ban the sale of liquor on Sundays. That eventually led to passage of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the era of Prohibition from 1919 to 1933.  

According to Clemson University economist Bruce Yandle, the Baptists "wanted liquor outlawed because it was sinful." They thought society was better off if people had fewer opportunities to purchase booze. And the bootleggers? They “gleefully” welcomed the law’s restrictions because it cut out their competitors—commercial producers and retailers. If people couldn’t buy liquor legally, they would have to turn to the bootlegger.

Today the temperance movement is a footnote in history, but Yandle’s insights remain valid. New Baptist-bootlegger coalitions form all the time. Special interest groups take advantage of one another and make odd alliances to achieve their diverse goals. Recently I discovered how one such alliance works as I was walking through the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Instead of liquor, this one involves ethanol, a fuel made of corn that is distilled into alcohol and mixed with gasoline. Over the past two decades, the federal government has spent $7 billion to produce ethanol at the urging of modern day Baptists and bootleggers. The “Baptists” are clean-air environmentalists and public health charities. The “bootleggers” are farmers who grow corn for a living and private refiners who turn it into a salable commodity.

Inside the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport sits a fancy-looking electronic kiosk that tells you everything you want to know about ethanol. It is sponsored by the Minnesota affiliate of the American Lung Association, a non-profit charity. The booth sings the praises of ethanol as "safe, renewable [it comes from corn], high in octane and readily broken down in the natural environment when spilled." That's because it's made from "the same alcohol found in beverages made for human consumption."

The enviro-Baptists at the Lung Association think ethanol is a socially responsible fuel and aim to win new converts to their cause. But the bootleggers see dollar signs. Unlike anti-drink crusaders, they can’t ban gasoline sales, but they can make ethanol seem like an efficient alternative to gasoline by paying farmers and refiners to produce it. Two groups—the Minnesota Corn Growers Association and the Minnesota Coalition for Ethanol—successfully lobby state legislators to win state subsidies for ethanol.

Since 1987, the state of Minnesota has spent more than $200 million to subsidize ethanol production. Early this year, the Corn Growers and the Coalition for Ethanol fought a proposal by Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty to cut back the state’s yearly ethanol subsidy by $27 million. Reducing the subsidy would mean reducing the amount of ethanol to be distilled, which would mean finding other markets for selling corn. The state legislature agreed that farmers and ethanol distillers would be worse off if the subsidy was cut. The governor’s proposal went nowhere.

But what made the special interests' lobbying seem noble and disinterested was the position of the Lung Association. Thousands of travelers probably saw the booth at the airport that persuaded them that ethanol was safer, cleaner, and kinder to the environment. No doubt many are state residents and voters. By refusing to cut funding to the ethanol program, Minnesota legislators avoided offending voter sensitivities at the same time that they satisfied the economic interests of two important business blocs.

Clemson’s Yandle points out that politicians frequently make "Baptist" appeals to voters while building support among the “bootleggers” who directly benefit from their policies. That certainly seems to be what happened in Minnesota. Look around and see how it works in your state.