We Don’t Need Sunday “Blue Laws”


Ryan McMaken – December 10, 2019

It has now become commonplace for politicians and media pundits to casually assert that “everyone” — to use Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s term — is now working more and more hours — and perhaps two or three jobs — just to attain the most basic, near-subsistence standard of living.

This is repeated time and time again, usually without context or supporting evidence. Never mind, for example, that the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports only around 5 percent of workers hold more than one job.

And while there is some compelling evidence working time and incomes have moved sideways since 2001 — thanks largely to the effects of endless inflationary government stimulus — the median American is not working more now than in the good ol’ days of post-war America. Moreover, the standard of living is far, far higher now than during the 1950s and 1960s when new houses were on average 1,000 square-feet, most families had at most one car, and we all faced near-certain death if diagnosed with cancer.

Nonetheless, the current narrative is that Americans work all the time. Even worse, we’re told this endless grind has abolished the weekend, and no there’s no longer any common day of rest during which to enjoy time with our families.

Bring Back the Blue Laws?

As noted by Zachary Yost, some conservatives are now pressing for more government mandates — known as “blue laws” — forcing businesses to remain closed on Sundays. Yost writes:

Recently, a great many traditionalists were up in arms over North Dakota’s repeal of its blue laws, which prohibited retail businesses from operating before noon on Sundays. Blue laws were once in place across the country and increasingly have been rolled back. Usually they take the form of bans on alcohol and retail sales, hunting, and certain other recreations.

Perhaps among the most outraged was Fr. Dominic Bouck who argued:

The 24-7 retail culture hurts our poor. Those who suffer most from the loss of blue laws are those conscripted into hourly wage jobs: the young, the impoverished, single mothers, and all those who struggle. Are they not allowed to attend Mass? Worship the God of freedom? Blue laws protected the weakest among us by making sure they could attend church on Sundays.

Aside from the ridiculous likening of retail work to the slavery of conscription, Bouck has a point. The existence of a common day off for most of the population does indeed facilitate the promotion of family life, religious institutions, and social life in general beyond commercial institutions.

It’s a good thing.

However, as is so often the case with social conservatives these days, Bouck immediately rushes to a policy prescription — yet another government mandate — which leaves much to be desired.

Why People Work on Sunday

Before we can go any further on the matter of Sunday work hours, it is important to note the reason people work on Sunday. It’s not because evil cigar-chomping capitalists decided they could force people into their stores if only those stores opened on Sunday.

In reality, shops and stores only open on Sunday when the owners believe there are enough customers who want to shop there on Sunday. Only if the customers show up do Sunday hours justify the extra expense of staffing the shop. Moreover, shop owners are concerned that if they remain closed on Sunday, their potential customers will go somewhere else. And again, this is only an issue if customers want to be out shopping in the first place.

For example, grocery stores are open on Sunday because the stores’ owners predicted — often correctly — that a sufficiently large number of customers wanted the stores open that day. The same is true of any luggage store, gas station, or restaurant. If customers stop showing up to those places, those locations will cease to open on Sunday.

(Some businesses choose to close on Sunday anyway, due to concerns for intangibles. Chick-fil-A, for example, is closed on Sunday partly out of concern for maintaining better worker-management relations. Other concerns include the founder’s religious beliefs.)

Thus, the reason businesses open on Sunday is due to bottom-up pressure from consumers, not top-down conniving on the part of management. As much as some people would prefer otherwise, the fact is we live in a society where most people see no problem at all with going to the movies or shoe shopping on Sunday. Business owners merely respond by attempting to meet this demand.

The Problem with Blue Laws

If we lived in a society where people didn’t want to buy and sell things on Sunday, we wouldn’t “need” blue laws in the first place. But since the Sunday-shopping reality reflects the value systems of average Americans, we know that such laws will bring attempts at circumventing them, while also preventing people from doing what they otherwise would rather do. This means a reduction in many people’s real-world utility.

Moreover, some people more or less need to go shopping on Sunday.

For example, some orthodox Jews actually take their sabbath seriously. For them, that means no shopping between Friday evening and Saturday evening. For many of these people, Sunday offers the only opportunity for shopping or for secular entertainment.

Shall we endorse state laws that prohibit them from shopping on the one day during which they have neither work obligations nor religious obligations?

And, if a Jewish entrepreneur were to open his or her store on Sunday to help provide these needed goods and services, how shall this person be punished by state authorities? Since every law also brings with it the need to enforce those laws, how large of a fine shall be assessed on Jewish shopkeepers who dare violate the blue laws? $5,000 per offense? $50,000? One could claim it would be easy for lawmakers to just carve out an exemption for Jews. But then police must take measures to prevent non-Jews from shopping at the stores. If a non-Jew walks into a Jewish-owned deli on Sunday and buys groceries, we’ll need judges, prosecutors, and police to impose the prescribed sanctions whether those be fines, jail time, probation, or mandatory community service. Repeat offenders, of course, will require harsher penalties.

This need not be a religious issue either. Some workers are very badly needed at odd times. Pipes can burst on any day of the week, and this problem must usually be remedied immediately. Cars break down on all days of the week. Tow-truck drivers will be sorely tempted to provide a much-needed — and surely greatly appreciated — service on Sunday by helping a family clear the roadway and get the family’s car to a repair shop. Police will need to be on hand to cite or arrest these people.

In response, some might say “golly, we’re only asking that non-essential businesses be closed!” But who is to decide what businesses are essential? If the answer involves either politicians or government bureaucrats, count me out.

Economic systems are complex things, as are human societies. Yes, it would be a good thing if people took more seriously the idea of a common day of rest. But as we’ve seen in our examples, we haven’t even been able to decide on which day shall be that day. Different people come from different cultural and religious backgrounds.

Views also differ on how this day of rest ought to be celebrated. Murray Rothbard writes of how the problem manifested itself in conflicts between liturgical Christians and “Pietist” Christians during the Progressive era.

Rothbard points out liturgical Christians — i.e., Lutherans and Catholics — liked to meet up in taverns and drink and eat together on Sundays. Some other Christian groups, meanwhile, insisted that no alcohol be consumed on Sunday at all. Naturally, efforts by the Pietists to legally proscribe Sunday commerce on this matter was a significant cultural problem for others.

Decentralize the Blue Laws

The more broadly applied these rules are, the most unjust they become. In any political jurisdiction lacking total religious and cultural uniformity, a one-size-fits-all legal regimen is sure to favor one group at the expense of others.

As with so many other laws dealing with controversial “social policy” — i.e., abortion, circumcision, drug and alcohol use — legal mandates are only tolerable or arguably moral when they conform to the cultural views of a near-100-percent majority. When views are mixed within a single jurisdiction, such laws become naturally oppressive to the out-of-power minority.

If we are to insist on blue laws to address issues like Sunday labor, they must be kept local, decentralized, and applied in a manner that respects local demographic realities. Applied at the municipal or county level, such laws are more likely to reflect the specific cultural realities of the local population. We certainly can’t say the same of national or statewide laws. Moreover, at the local level, these laws are easy to circumvent with only moderate effort. Christians living in a Jewish neighborhood — where everything may be closed Saturday morning — can without strenuous effort travel to a neighboring area where it is easy to buy groceries on Saturday. This would be a feature, not a bug.

Hardliners in favor of blue laws will of course denounce this sort of freedom that results from decentralized legal regimes. They’ll claim too much freedom defeats the purpose of the blue laws, which is to force a way of life on certain people.

There is another way. The people who deplore Sunday shopping could work to convince others to voluntarily refrain from shopping. This however, would require a lot of effort and self-discipline on the part of the busybodies. In order to demonstrate any sort of consistent commitment to the ideal of a work-free Sunday, these people would need to give up watching NFL games on Sunday. Football games require a lot of workers to put them on. Consistency would require no more ordering pizzas on Sunday; no more Sundays flying on commercial airlines; no more trips to the hardware store. And so on. So don’t expect to see a wave of our cultural gatekeepers teaching us by example any time soon. It’s much easier to just have some politicians pass some laws. 

Originally published at Mises.org. Ryan McMaken is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. He has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

Image source:Chuck Coker via Flickr

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