Imposing Virtue by Government Edict Is Impossible

My first visit to Salt Lake City was my first. I wandered out of my hotel to find a place to drink. I was told by the bouncer that it 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. For five dollars, he offered to sell me temporary memberships. I accepted and gladly paid. 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. This was Dwight D. Eisenhower’s reminder that laws have not stopped sin. In the same vein, bar owners aren’t going to adopt a high moral standard and make it 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 the 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 from Harvard Law and Sohrab Ahmari of New York Post suggested that the Sabbath be restored to its sacredness.

“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 problem with the 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. There are many restrictions on the sale of liquor, sales of cars, and any other activity on Sundays that states impose, but most of them result from interest group jockeying. Today, these laws are more likely to be used online.

These rules are merely annoying to the general 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.” What makes anyone wish to return to those times?

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. We will be more likely to get fined and harassed by the government.

They should also consider Jesus’ encounters with Pharisee religious rulers, who were horrified when Jesus healed a Sabbath-stricken man. “Which one of you has a son, or an ox, that’s fallen into the well on Sabbath? Will not pull him out immediately?” Jesus retorted. Jesus cared about us inner selves and not outward piety.

Non-conservatives also consider the idea due to its ability to lower the cost of living. “Rest is hard to come by these days,” wrote Joel Mathis in a column arguing that blue laws might help. Post-religious American capitalism does not allow us to relax. But few are working 7 days a week.

Businesses closing on Sundays will not reduce employment and make it harder for people to shop and enjoy 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.