During my first trip to Salt Lake City, I wandered from my hotel room in search of a drink, found a modest pub, and went to order a beer or three. "Sir, this is a private club," the bouncer told me. I headed toward the door feeling dejected and confused. This certainly doesn't look like an exclusive joint.
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. He could sell me a temporary membership for five bucks, to which I happily obliged. I still have that membership card in a drawer somewhere.
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. It was a reminder of Dwight D. Eisenhower's words: "We have never stopped sin by passing laws; and in the same way, we are not going to take a great moral ideal and achieve it merely 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). The term likely is "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. Pressed for policy prescriptions in their traditionalist agenda, Harvard Law Professor Adrian Vermeule and the New York Post's Sohrab Ahmari floated the idea of restoring the sanctity 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 The American Conservative. Yet Ahmari inadvertently points to one of the major 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.
Likewise, small businesses try to ban Sunday store hours to give them a leg up in competing with big-box stores. Plenty of crazy blue laws still exist, of course, especially in the Bible Belt. States impose myriad limitations on liquor sales, car sales, and other activities on Sundays, most of which are the result of interest group jockeying. These days, such laws will only move more commerce online.
These rules merely annoy the public. If you want to abstain from drinking or observe the Sabbath, then abstain from drinking 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. "A woman in Mississippi cannot pick up a pair of stockings on her way to church. In New Orleans, people can buy anything on Sundays, but they are compelled to go to…the French Quarter to do so." Why would anyone want a return to those days?
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. Government will have more reasons to control, fine, and harass us.
These Christian conservatives ought to ponder Jesus' dealings with the rule-bound Pharisee religious leaders, who were aghast after he healed a man on Sabbath. "Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?" Jesus retorted. He was concerned about our inner selves, not our outward piety.
Even non-conservatives are toying with the idea because of its goal of reducing the burden on workers. "Rest is hard to come by these days," wrote Joel Mathis in a column arguing that blue laws might help. "Post-religious American capitalism doesn't leave us much room to just relax." Yet few people are working seven days a week.
Mandating that businesses close Sunday won't do anything other than reduce jobs and give the rest of us fewer opportunities to go shopping and live our lives as we choose. Then again, I don't want the government to make us virtuous. I just want it to leave us alone.
This column was first published in The Orange County Register.