Baptists and Bootleggers: Karnataka Edition

“Baptists and bootleggers” is a popular concept in economics. It is used to illustrate that in the absence of sound economic thinking, good intentions don’t count for much. According to this concept, baptists want to ban the sale of alcohol on Sundays because it is the day of the lord, and they don’t want people to be drinking that day. And this plays out directly into the hands of bootleggers – who make a living supplying people their booze on Sundays.

So by calling for the sale of liquor to be banned on Sundays, baptists are essentially encouraging an illegal activity and an illegal trade. If not for the baptists, people would be able to buy their liquor legally on Sundays, and bootleggers would be out of business.

There is also a social cost to policies like this – by pushing an activity (such as the sale of liquor on Sundays) underground, you encourage nefarious elements to get into business, rather than keeping it in clean hands. And this is likely to increase the overall rate of crime.

Thus, by their supposedly moral position that alcohol should not be sold on Sundays, baptists actually end up unintentionally encouraging crime!

A similar story to this has been playing out in Karnataka in the last twenty years. For whatever reason, in 1993, the government of Karnataka decided to freeze the total number of liquor licenses in the state. Since 1993, if you want to open a bar or a liquor shop, you need to purchase a license from the secondary market. Effectively, for every new liquor outlet, some outlet somewhere in the state has to close down (whether such closure is usually voluntary or not is left as an exercise to the reader). This increases the cost of liquor intermediation in the state and leads to higher prices for the consumer.

While higher prices may be desirable for “sin goods” such as liquor, there is a better way for the government to increase consumer prices – by levying higher taxes, which ensures that the additional money thus paid by the consumer flows into the government coffers. By limiting the number of licenses, however, the government doesn’t get extra revenue.

Instead what this encourages is illegal sale of liquor! That there is a limit on the number of liquor licenses doesn’t push down people’s need for liquor. And they end up buying liquor from illegal sources and bootleggers, and it becomes difficult to maintain quality and hygiene standards on such sales. And with a bar having to close down for every new one that needs to open, you might imagine the kind of characters that might get involved in the process.

Back in 2008, a friend was trying to start a lounge bar, and he mentioned that he had to pay up to the tune of Rs. 30 lakh to get his license, while the official price is about a tenth of the amount. It is obvious that not all the money he paid for his license went to the government’s coffers.

Where do the baptists come here? Because every time there is a proposal to increase the number of liquor licenses, you will have a wave of morality which protests this decision. They are the baptists who keep Karnataka’s bootleggers in business.

Also read this piece on the funny rules of Karnataka’s liquor licensing regime.

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