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This question is about an idea/decision I use in my conworld. There are also plenty of other questions on that world such as this one on steam engines or that one on military forces.

The setting is that of a world with a technological level around the Interwar Period and a societal level around that of the Victorian Era.
Though answers to this question are encouraged to go further back to Medieval times and farther.


That said, this question is about the decision of a larger region or country granting the local clerical body the exclusive right of the production of alcohol & alcoholic beverage, as well as the right of granting brewing/distilling permits to third parties.
The church does not control import/export of alcohol & alcoholic beverages, but they decide who they supply with their own products and who not.

Thus they effectively control the supply of alcohol in the whole region/country and thus the festiveness of tens-of-thousands of people1.

Q: Why would they be granted such an exclusive right/permission?

I have thought about them in turn having to provide certain amenities or similar, e.g. hospitals, almshouses and orphanages. Certainly these services and their provision would have grown over time with the cultural connection of church and wellfare as well.
But would that be a big enough burden to offset that huge boon of controlling a major commodity?

1Again, excluding imports from other regions/countries..


Addendum: The church itself is a rather huge polytheistic confluence of older simpler polytheistic and monotheistic religions of different areas and tribes.

They started off as the spiritual part of herdsmen and nomads of the Green Wides. Due to the nature of the people of these areas, the original churchmen started creating fix settlements where the wandering groups would find shelter, could exchange wares and bury their dead without fearing bandit raids or similar.

Over time the wandering groups would strife further north, west, south & east and thus get in touch with other groups and religions, which they understood to integrate into their own pantheon in order to mingle with these others.2

2Others that soon became part of their growing culture & society.


Anotherdendum: As many seem to still automagically assume Church to refer to a monotheistic organization based on a set of two books that in turn are made up of dubiously sourced letters and other short texts - here's a definition:

[Churches:]

  • claim universality, include all members of the society within their ranks, and have a strong tendency to equate 'citizenship' with 'membership
  • exercise religious monopoly and try to eliminate religious competition very closely allied with the state and secular powers - frequently there is overlapping of responsibilities and much mutual reinforcement
  • extensively organized as a hierarchical bureaucratic institution with a complex division of labor
  • employ professional, full-time clergy who possess the appropriate credentials of education and formal ordination
  • almost by definition gain new members through natural reproduction and the socialization of children into the ranks
  • allow for diversity by creating different groups within the church (e.g., orders of nuns or monks) rather than through the formation of new religions

Wikibooks: Introduction to Sociology; Johnstone, Ronald L. 1997. Religion in Society: A Sociology of Religion

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    $\begingroup$ The question kinda seems to be self answering...during the period prior to church and state seperation when the church had a great share of political power, why would the church grant themselves exclusive rights over something? $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Dec 19 '16 at 22:31
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    $\begingroup$ Church indeed had such rights to beer, once upon a time, when beer was most needed commodity (safer to drink than water). Look at medieval times and history of beer. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Dec 19 '16 at 22:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Twelft please feel free to elaborate on that thought in form of an answer $\endgroup$ – dot_Sp0T Dec 20 '16 at 6:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Molot why not expand that comment into a fully fledged answer? It seems to me that you've got a clear idea there just waiting to be made accessible to others :) $\endgroup$ – dot_Sp0T Dec 20 '16 at 6:45
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    $\begingroup$ This is the case in present day Iran: As a part of its liturgy, Armenian Church is allowed to use wine and to produce it as long as it is used only in christian ritual of Eucharist. $\endgroup$ – mouviciel Dec 20 '16 at 15:16
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I live in Pennsylvania. Let me answer this from local experience. No, the church doesn't control alcohol here, but the state Liquor Control Board does.

Your question has two parts: how a body gains control initially, and how it holds onto this power. (You didn't actually ask the second part, but it's relevant.)

Governments sometimes prohibit or restrict material that they consider dangerous. In the US, alcohol was prohibited entirely for a time by constitutional amendment, which means a large number of people with political power decided the matter. Then later, a large number of people with political power said "never mind", but even though it was no longer prohibited, it remained regulated. Some drugs are similarly prohibited (e.g. narcotics) and others regulated (e.g. marijuana, in some jurisdictions). Other matters of personal consumption are also regulated (e.g. tobacco).

In your world, your government needs to decide (and popularize the idea) that alcohol is dangerous in some way and needs to be regulated. It can then entrust this regulation to the church (who probably lobbied for regulation in the first place, either secretly or openly). Your church should be broadly seen as doing good work and being deserving of the trust. (The PA liquor control board didn't need to meet this requirement because it's an arm of the government, but an outside body would.)

Once they have control, how do they retain it? Political scheming can work, but popular support works better. In PA a lot of this comes from labor unions (who staff the stores); in your world the church will need popular support, like being the dominant religion. Your church, like the LCB, will make sure that there is widespread education about the dangers of alcohol. It might facilitate groups like Mothers Against Drunk Riding (sounds like you might have horses rather than cars). The church will ensure that people's alcohol needs are being met, that people can buy (perhaps-limited) amounts for their festivities. So long as people see that drinking isn't getting out of hand, but they can still get wine for celebrations, they'll leave well-enough alone.

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Consider the power that the Christian church held in medieval Europe. Now also consider the role which wine held in certain rituals (the blood of Christ).

A powerful religious organization could argue that wanton alcohol consumption is blasphemous, and that they should have the power to regulate its consumption based on its importance in their rituals.

Thus, the Church might become the only producer of alcohol, and/or the only entity allowed to charge other with producing this most holy of elixirs.

Fidget with the details of how important alcohol is for them, and how often it's used, and you should have no problem explaining how they came about owning those exclusive rights.

However, alcohol is rather simple to make. How will you stop disrespectful peasants from simply ignoring you? The Inquisition? Up to you to decide.

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    $\begingroup$ A combination of the Muslim ban on alcohol with the Christian use only for ritual would probably fit the bill. I'm sure it would be widely ignored, but there would be plenty of room for bribery and burning drunkards at the stake (while doused in alcohol?) and other fun things. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Dec 19 '16 at 22:19
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    $\begingroup$ Your last paragraph strikes me somewhat. Where I live you need permits to make and especially sell alcohol. No matter how easy it is to distill. The question states that the government or whatever poses as such grants the church the only permit, so the police would stop the people.. $\endgroup$ – dot_Sp0T Dec 20 '16 at 11:11
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    $\begingroup$ @dot_Sp0T I think the point of the last paragraph is that you would need some kind of police power to stop people from making and trading alcohol, and you would need to decide how that police power is exercised (and resisted) in your world. Would it be like the U.S. was in the 1920s? $\endgroup$ – David K Dec 20 '16 at 13:49
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidK: the US in the 1920’s is an extreme case. If you prohibit alcohol entirely, or tax/restrict it very severely, then yes, people will take matters into their own hands, and enforcement becomes very difficult. What’s much more common historically, though, is for it to be taxed/restricted to a moderate degree, so that most people are happy to buy at the official price rather than turning outlaw. In that situation, moonshine and bootlegging may exist, but only on a small scale — they won’t put too big a dent in the power/profit of the monopoly. $\endgroup$ – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Dec 20 '16 at 16:36
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine I think US Prohibition is indeed an unlikely model for the OP's fictional world. Something less extreme is more likely. I just thought the last paragraph was a valid point to consider; the social costs of enforcement are unlikely to be zero. $\endgroup$ – David K Dec 20 '16 at 17:06
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Moral

As AndreiROM and kingledion conjectured, the church might have used its moral authority to control and thus limit alcohol consumption in the society. Many actual societies have developed similar institutions that were either enforced by the state (American prohibition) or religious organizations (eg. in the Islamic world). The cultural-evolutionary rationale for this is that wide-spread alcohol consume may limit a societies productivity, is correlated with crimes and social unrest and might even have destabilizing consequences for the regime in power.

Spiritual

Alcohol (and drugs, more generally) can be part of the religion's ritual. Either because they have consciousness-expanding effects or because they ease social interaction amongst people who barely know each other (one function of religions is to create a positive group identity and bring together / create a safe communication space). As a consequence, your church might have been historically linked to the production of alcohol and might have been granted an official monopoly by the state only to consolidate the factual monopoly that the church had already required.

Rent-Seeking

The role that rent-seeking will have played in any historical development will vary in degree but it is quite likely that rent-seeking will have played a (somewhat) decisive role in any explanation for why the church was to able acquire a monopoly on alcohol production. Important here are the facts that churches can be very powerful organizations, that their innocent appearances are ideal for lobbying and the expansion of their political and economic power.

Economic

With the technology level you have assumed (in fact, any technological level from the middle ages onwards would suffice) there is no sound economic reason as to why the monopolization of alcohol production is efficient for the society as a whole. The main reason here is that alcohol production involves very low fix costs (tinkering instead of R&D, low starting costs for a distillery) and thus, alcohol production is nowhere close to being a natural monopoly (in fact it is quite the opposite).

Provision of health services and concerns as to the quality of alcohol

Churches have often come to be (at least in some way) responsible for societal well-being. In the western world, for example, they have developed a close connection to the feeding of the poor and the provision of hospitals. If the church has come to develop a similar function within your society, they provide most of the health services and manage to successfully argue that any production of alcohol not controlled by them brings about severe quality issues (especially the case with privately-owned small scale distilleries), the state might have granted them the exclusive right to produce alcohol to avoid the issue as a whole. This, can be argued, to be only fair since the organization (here, the church) to provide all or most of the society's health services should also be given some control as to the most important health hazards.

Food security during famines (credits to bdceaf)

As production of alcohol uses up resources that could otherwise be used in the food production (most importantly, raw staple food but also capital and labor), it seems reasonable to limit the production of alcohol in times of famine. If the state would have wanted to guarantee basic food production for everyone, the church might a reliable partner to weigh off the gains from alcohol production (in their financial interest) and the risks of greater famines (not in their moral interest).

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    $\begingroup$ Nice list. I would like to add a point - as alcohol is typically produced from food it made sense to strictly regulate its production in times of famine. $\endgroup$ – bdecaf Dec 20 '16 at 10:12
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    $\begingroup$ I like that point. I added the point to the list (with credits, of course). $\endgroup$ – eigenvector Dec 21 '16 at 16:41
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One reason may be simply a strict culture of enforcing intellectual property laws, or their equivalent - the church has the finest recipes and longest experience in brewing, and so their monasteries brew the best beer.

It may actually be legal to brew your own - and maybe even to sell it - but not on any scale or at a price that brings you any reward.

Let's face it, even if you can comply with the strict Purity Laws, your homebrew can hardly compete with the Trappist monastery down the road with 800 years of experience refining their closely guarded recipes.

As supporting evidence for this idea, I present ... Belgium.

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Perhaps the Church provides the alcohol for free to anyone who wants it (reducing the likelihood of home brewers). If this is not an option, then make the "wild yeasts" in the area produce bad flavors or heavy toxins if used. The Church has access to other yeasts that they use for their processing that provides the best beer.

You could even tie alcohol (and any other mind influencing substances) to religious experiences. Maybe the only time your people drink is during ritual ceremonies and to become closer to the Gods. Your religious organization could even make it their dogma that spirits produced without the blessing of the Church are tainted and will lead a soul to damnation (adding in the fact that local wild yeasts are poisonous or foul tasting will reinforce this).

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For many years the governemt may have supplied the church with the means to sustain itself by tax relief, and other social actions that allowed the church to survive. However, over time do to war, famines, and other social issues the state was either no long able or willing to do so but the common people still relied on the church for burial, spiral needs and the like. So, the stated had to do something, and decided to give control of production of alcohol to the church. So, that it may be able to parishly sustain itself, and still provide the relief that it need to for the community.

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Alcohol needs to be blessed before consumption.

Because wine is the blood of the Christ, non-blessed wine is the blood of the anti-Christ; or something like that.

The church has no way of knowing whether an import is blessed or not and they are harder to enforce than the production, so the church may allow that. The funding of the church may rely on such monopolies if taxation is too hard, especially wandering people are hard, because you cannot go to their fields and see how much they are producing. It is always bad if there are some laws, taxes and regulations that cannot be enforced. This is because breaches hurt the authority.

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