Blue Laws Put Crimp on Economic Freedom
by Ari Armstrong[This article originally appeared as a Speakout column in the June 14, 2002 edition of the Rocky Mountain News, page 53A.]
Why can't we buy alcoholic beverages at liquor stores on Sunday? It seems to be one of those things we've grown so used to that we don't consider the reasons why.
Blake Harrison, a student at the University of Denver School of Law, asked why, and when he didn't find a good answer he started a group called Coloradans for Alcohol Choice (www.liquorlaws.org), which is trying to repeal the prohibition on Sunday liquor sales. The group is currently distributing petitions to change the law.
So, why Sunday and not Monday or Tuesday? The answer, of course, has everything to do with religion. Though nobody seems to have a clear idea of where the term "blue law" came from, it has come to describe laws that attempt to control personal morality.
Blue laws usually attempt to restrict behavior on Sundays. Besides prohibiting the sale of alcohol and cars on Sundays, blue laws have historically targeted other activities such as dancing, singing, and fiddling.
However, even though these economic restrictions have their roots in American Puritanism, today they are supported by the liquor industry. Why? The answer is simple: they want the day off.
Most liquor stores figure people have adjusted to the law and stock up for the weekend ahead of time. They figure they can shut down one day a week and not lose much in sales. Thus, the cost of the Sunday prohibition law, in terms of inconvenience, is spread out among all the customers. The benefits accrue to the relatively small number of liquor stores.
If a few liquor stores started selling their products on Sundays, then the rest of the liquor stores would feel financial pressure to open, too. So, the liquor-store establishment uses political force to squelch its competition.
It seems strange that a religious movement and the liquor industry are behind Colorado's blue laws. But that sort of thing happens all the time. Economist Bruce Yandle developed an entire theory of economic regulation based on the tendency. For instance, who supported the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s? Those with a moral ax to grind supported it, and so did the bootleggers, who stood to make obscene profits on the black market.
On his web page, Harrison points out the absurdity of prohibiting sales at liquor stores while allowing them at bars, restaurants, and (for 3.2 beer) grocery stores. He suggests stores should be able to choose which days to do business, just as customers should be able to choose which days they want to shop.
The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees the "equal protection of the laws." Yet while most businesses are free to open on Sundays, a few stores that would like to open are prohibited from doing so by force of law. To put the matter bluntly, if these stores try to do business on Sunday, eventually men with guns will come to shut them down. Likewise, customers of these products face unequal treatment under the law.
The First Amendment recognizes the principle that government ought not pursue "an establishment of religion." The Puritanical blue laws obviously strain against this limitation. Religious groups should keep in mind that when they try to use the law to enforce their standards of personal morality on everyone else, the law is likely to come back to strike at their own freedom to worship.
Even the minor injustices of the prohibition on Sunday liquor sales warrant reform. But at stake is a much broader principle. Do property rights trump special-interest politics? Can it be just for some people to use physical force to prevent "capitalist acts between consenting adults," as Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick famously phrased the matter?
No, this debate is not about sports fanatics who want to suck down a few brewskies in front of the TV on Sunday. Nor is it about the inconvenience faced by liquor store owners who might -- or might not -- choose to work Sundays. Deep down, the debate is about free markets versus political force.
So when you see that petition to repeal part of Colorado's blue laws, sign it, even if you're a teetotaler. It's not about liquor, it's about freedom.