As the end of the pandemic is finally in sight, a lesson from America’s Prohibition era provides important insights about upcoming regulatory battles.

It’s a story of how bootleggers and Baptists worked together early in the 20th century to prevent the sale of alcohol on Sundays. The story was first told in 1983 by Bruce Yandle, a man with firsthand experience in the world of government relations. Among other roles, he served as executive director of the Federal Trade Commission.

Yandle noted that many regulations come about through an alliance of true believers and people who will make money because of that belief. In the early 20th century example, Baptists were true believers in the virtue of eliminating the sale of alcohol on Sundays (and in the larger cause of Prohibition). Bootleggers would naturally be seen as their enemy.

Lifting mask mandates so soon will make someone look foolish in the end
Cox says masks still necessary for students, but some parents planning protests

The bootleggers, on the other hand, loved what the Baptists were promoting. After all, if legal drinking was outlawed, there was a lot of money to be made by selling illegal spirits. As a result, even though the bootleggers might sneer at the alcohol fighting true believers, they were happy to fund their campaigns and activities.

For a politician, this dynamic created a golden opportunity. They could pretend to take the moral high ground by publicly supporting the true believers. But, behind the scenes, bootleggers found other ways to persuade those same politicians behind closed doors.

What does this have to do with the pandemic?

In 2021, there are many true believers who want strict health protocols imposed until the coronavirus is defeated. There is talk about requiring vaccine passports to attend public events. In New York, that approach has already been implemented. If you want to attend a wedding reception, you must have a vaccine passport to prove that you have been vaccinated. The only exception is if you get tested for COVID-19 a couple of days before the event and can prove you tested negative.

To true believers, such an approach is only common sense. For some, perhaps, it’s the only way they would feel safe going to public events again.

But for those selling tests, vaccines and masks, this is a great opportunity for profit. If everybody must be tested, vaccinated and wear masks, it’s an enormous windfall backed by government regulations. And, the bonus might never end if new vaccines are required to deal with variants or people are encouraged to wear masks even after the pandemic is over.

None of this is to suggest that the true believers are consciously acting to help these corporate benefactors of new regulations. And, to be clear, there is nothing wrong with companies earning a profit when they provide services that are already bringing the pandemic to an end. But, the combination has the potential to create regulations with long-running implications and costs.

A miracle, or a scientific feat? Vaccines can be both

Still, there’s another lesson in this story from the Prohibition era. The bootleggers and Baptists pushed through a constitutional amendment banning the sale of alcohol throughout the nation. The bootleggers made out like bandits and the Baptists thought they had won a significant victory. But it was short-lived. Preventing people from taking part in long-established social events with alcohol provoked a strong backlash. In just 13 years, another constitutional amendment brought Prohibition to an end.

Adding insult to injury for the bootleggers and Baptists, the entire Prohibition debacle resulted in a huge step backward for the unholy alliance. Prior to Prohibition, most U.S. counties banned the sale of alcohol. After Prohibition, it became legal everywhere.

A potentially similar dynamic exists today. A recent survey I conducted found that, within the past month, 66% of voters have taken part in social activities frowned upon by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This includes things like having dinner at an indoor restaurant, going out in public without a mask, attending church in person and large family gatherings. 

If the policies dreamed of by true believers — policies like vaccine passports and never-ending lockdowns — become law, the United States could very well endure a wave of lawlessness much like that of the Prohibition era.

Scott Rasmussen is an American political analyst and digital media entrepreneur. He is the author of “The Sun Is Still Rising: Politics Has Failed But America Will Not.”