Blue Law Special
by Ari Armstrong
The following aricle originally appeared in the December 16, 2004, edition of Boulder Weekly.
Republicans support free markets? Ha! Nationally, many Republicans support mandatory, regulated accounts to replace part or all of Social Security. Here in Colorado, the Republican governor and treasurer backed corporate welfare for the tourism industry. Democratic Representative Paul Weissmann has tried for years to repeal the state's blue laws -- statutes that ban the sale of cars and alcohol on Sunday -- but he's beat his head against Republican economic interventionism.
But now Colorado Democrats rule the Capitol. Perhaps in the upcoming legislative session the Democrats can do what the Republicans have refused to accomplish regarding the blue laws: restore economic liberty. I asked Weissmann, "Do you support abolishing the blue laws in 2005?" He answered, "Yes! Why should only two industries be told by law that they cannot operate on Sundays?"
The blue laws are a vestige of the legal imposition of religion. According to Wikipedia, Puritan colonists first imposed blue laws in the 17th Century, and blue laws in Texas banned Sunday sales of pots, pans and washing machines. Houghton Mifflin describes "Sunday restriction on such activities as retail sales, general labor, liquor sales, boxing, hunting, or barbering, as well as polo, cockfighting, or clam digging." Wikipedia suggests the blue laws were inspired by Constantine's directive of 321 A.D. restricting work on Sunday.
An article from last year's Christian Science Monitor noted violations of the blue laws used to be punished by whippings, fines, burnt tongues and severed ears.
The Colorado law about cars is so ridiculous one might mistake it for a parody of legalese. Here's how statute 12-6-302 begins: "No person, firm, or corporation, whether owner, proprietor, agent, or employee, shall keep open, operate, or assist in keeping open or operating any place or premises or residences, whether open or closed, for the purpose of selling, bartering, or exchanging or offering for sale, barter, or exchange any motor vehicle, whether new, used, or secondhand, on the first day of the week commonly called Sunday."
So a guy in Colorado can wake up on Sunday, worship a golden calf, take the Lord's name in vain, spend the morning working, call his mother on the phone and dishonor her, commit adultery, and covet his neighbor's house and wife. And all these things are perfectly legal. He can then sit down with a heart-clogging pizza and enjoy the most pagan of rituals: professional football. He can legally guzzle a fifth of vodka out of the closet. But if he instead wants to drop by the local liquor mart and buy a beer to go with the pizza, well, that's over the line.
And we sure as hell can't let Aunt Mabel replace her blown car on the day "commonly called Sunday," her last day off before she returns to work. Break out the whips and tongue burners!
I asked Weissmann to explain why Republicans thwart free-market Sundays. He said Republicans tell him that, because some liquor store owners like the law, it should not be changed. Weissmann added, "The fact is that many in the industry do want the option to be open on Sunday. This [reform] would not force them to do so, just give them the opportunity to do so if they choose."
In 2002, Blake Harrison, a student at the University of Denver School of Law, tried to repeal the blue law pertaining to alcohol through initiative. He didn't succeed, mostly because of a lack of resources, but after I wrote about the effort I received an e-mail that stated, "I am a liquor store owner in Fort Collins and I would like to open on Sunday. How can I get involved to assist Blake Harrison in this effort?"
But most liquor stores -- or at least the most politically powerful ones -- like a day of rest. Why? Apparently they think enough people stock up early to allow a day off. When everybody must take the same day off by law, nobody has to worry about competition then.
And so those who sell the demon alcohol jump into bed politically with the Puritans. Yet this isn't so unusual. I once heard economist Bruce Yandle describe his "Bootleggers and Baptists" theory, based on the lessons of alcohol prohibition. Yandle points out that moral crusaders often align themselves with the beneficiaries of economic restrictions.
Republicans who support the blue laws sacrifice individual rights to special interests. Specifically, individuals have the right to purchase cars and alcohol from willing providers on Sunday. Those who own car and liquor stores have the right to sell their goods on whatever days they please. Repealing the blue laws is not only a matter of economic efficiency, it is a matter of moral governance.
And so I conclude my column as I take the last sip of my Old Fezzwig Ale, a beverage Sam Adams brews "in the tradition of special seasoned beers for the winter Holidays, [which] takes its name from the festive character in Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol."
To the tradition of free markets, individual rights, and the brewing business of American revolutionary Samuel Adams, Colorado Republicans have said Bah Humbug. Maybe the Democrats can spread a little free-market cheer.