Are we seeing the end of Baptist-bootlegger politics?

Thirty years ago, economist Bruce Yandle introduced the world in a classic essay to the pervasive power of “Bootleggers and Baptists,” a catchphrase used to refer to any alliance between those who support a regulation for moralistic reasons and those who seek to profit from undermining the regulation’s stated purpose. Prohibition is the classic example of this paradigm, but in truth, such coalitions are all too common.

But recently, there are signs that bootlegger-Baptist coalitions may be losing their power. First, there were the recent successful marijuana legalization efforts in Colorado and Washington state.  Now, a new bill in Michigan may signal that the political efficacy of Baptist-bootlegger coalitions is decisively waning.

That bill – H.B. 5108, sponsored by Michigan state Rep. Tim Kelly – allows anyone who owns a ticket to a sporting event or concert to resell that ticket at a profit. In short, it allows scalping. This practice, which many probably assume is commonplace, remains illegal in Michigan because of a 1931 state law that has yet to be reformed. Given the proliferation of services that permit resales through sites like Stubhub with the consent of the venue, team or artist, enforcement of the laws has been selective, to put it charitably.

Ordinarily, a bill designed to legalize a practice as morally frowned upon as scalping might be assumed to be dead on arrival. This bill, however, has already attracted both grassroots and political support. Michigan Capitol Confidential explains:

The bill has supporters across the spectrum. Michigan Citizens Action is a group that “uses progressive policies and the power of grass-roots networks [to] advance social, racial and economic justice for all.”

“Linda Teeter, executive director of the group, said her organization supports the bill because consumers are “victim to an old outdated Michigan law.”

“Currently, any individual consumer cannot sell a ticket they purchased to another individual for over face value,” Teeter said. “Most consumers are probably unaware of the law which makes this transaction illegal.”

The bill is co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of representatives: Sam Singh, D-East Lansing; Bill LaVoy, D-Monroe; Doug Geiss, D-Taylor; Ray Franz, R-Onekama; Patrick Somerville, R-New Boston; Bob Genetski, R-Saugatuck; Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan; Ken Yonker, R-Caledonia; Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth; Joe Graves, R-Argentine Township; and Scott Dianda, D-Calumet.

In contrast, there does not (yet) appear to be any organized opposition. That’s saying something, seeing as the ticket sales industry does, in fact, come with its own tailor-made Baptist-bootlegger alliance that could oppose this law. The identities of the Baptists in this scenario – musicians, disapproving fans – are obvious. However, there are also groups that easily fit the bootlegger model: specifically, services like Ticketmaster that mark tickets up with non-transparent but technically unrelated “fees,” and then attempt to stifle the secondary ticket market by attaching numerous byzantine restrictions on the resale and “gifting” of tickets purchased through their service. Among these, of course, is the restriction that consumers cannot sell tickets purchased through Ticketmaster at a price below what Ticketmaster itself would charge: effectively, a form of protectionism for tickets already sold above their original price. Those looking for a bootlegger will have spotted their mark by now.

Yet if these forces are exerting opposition, it hasn’t been heard of in the press, nor mentioned by the bill’s supporters. In other words, those straightforwardly defending a morally questionable but economically irreproachable act are winning the battle over economically illiterate regulations, and appear poised to continue to do so in at least one straightforward case where they would ordinarily lose.

Naturally, this is no guarantee of a wider victory over the toxic effects of Baptist-bootlegger inspired regulations, but to paraphrase a grimmer quote,  if first they freed the marijuana users, then they freed the ticket scalpers, then who knows who will come next?

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