Imposing Virtue by Government Edict Is Impossible

My first visit to Salt Lake City was my first. I went out of my hotel to find a place to drink. The bouncer informed me that this was a private club. Dejected, I walked toward the door. This is not a joint that’s exclusive.

At that point, the bouncer started laughing, realizing that I was the latest out-of-towner who was unaware of Utah’s Mormon-inspired booze laws. The bouncer offered me five dollars for a temporary membership, which I gladly accepted. That membership card is still in my drawer.

To reduce drinking, Utah banned bars, but allowed an exception for private clubs—so bar owners came up with a workaround that accomplished nothing other than adding a fee on bar hoppers. Dwight D. Eisenhower said it was an opportunity to remind us that we have never stopped sin through passing laws. And in the same manner, we’re not going take great moral ideals and only achieve them by law.

Utah eliminated that silly private-club requirement in 2009, although states still have vestiges of these so-called “blue laws,” which refer to Puritan-era relics that restrict alcohol sales and certain activities such as shopping on Sundays (to observe the Sabbath). This term is likely to be based on an 18th century usage of the word. blue meaning ‘rigidly moral’ in a disparaging sense,” according to Brittanica.

Oddly enough, a new group of post-liberal (in the free-market sense of the word) conservatives is pushing for a restoration of these religious-based laws. Adrian Vermeule, a Harvard Law professor and Sohrab Ahmari from the New York Post floated the idea to restore the sacredness of the Sabbath.

“A campaign for the Sabbath can bring together labor unions, religious conservatives, and small-business owners (that last group historically opposed abolishing blue laws for lack of ability to compete),” Ahmari wrote this month in American Conservative.Ahmari, however, accidentally points out one of the main problems with these laws.

Instead of promoting virtue, they become a means by which special interests—such as small businesses and beer distributors—abuse the legislative process to limit competition. For instance, alcohol distributors and unions have united to oppose California legislation that allows distillers and breweries to ship their products directly to consumers. It’s a cynical—not moral—effort.

To compete against big-box shops, small businesses may also want to restrict Sunday shop hours. Plenty of crazy blue laws still exist, of course, especially in the Bible Belt. Many restrictions are placed on Sundays by states on alcohol sales and car sales. Most of these limitations result from interest group jockeying. Such laws won’t stop commerce from moving online any time soon.

These rules do not offend the public. If you wish to stop drinking or observe Sabbath, please abstain and observe the Sabbath. California has relatively few such restrictions (although our state has plenty of other asinine restrictions on work and commerce) and other states have been relaxing them over the years.

“Texans can buy beer on Sundays but not diapers,” noted a 1984 article in The New York Times. Mississippi women cannot purchase stockings as they travel to church. In New Orleans, people can buy anything on Sundays, but they are compelled to go to…the French Quarter to do so.” Who would want to go back to those days again?

The goal of using government to achieve socially conservative ends is, as conservative writer Thomas Fitzgerald argued, “another bit of modernist utopianism, sure to be as brutal, yet brittle, when confronted with political reality.” Americans simply will find absurd workarounds—just as drinkers had done for decades in Utah. The government will find more ways to harass and control us.

The Christian conservatives should ponder Jesus’ interactions with Pharisee religious leaders who are bound by rules, and were shocked when he healed an uninjured man on Sabbath. “Which among you, whether you have a son or an animal that is sick, won’t immediately bring him back? Jesus retorted. He cared about us inner selves and not outward piety.

Because of the goal to reduce the worker burden, even non-conservatives have been exploring the idea. “Rest is hard to come by these days,” wrote Joel Mathis in a column arguing that blue laws might help. We don’t have much time to simply relax after the end of post-religious American capitalism. Few people work seven days per week.

The only thing that will reduce the number of jobs is for businesses to close on Sunday. It also means less people have more opportunities to shop or live their lives. But, again, I do not want government to make me virtuous. I just want it to leave us alone.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.