Chipping away at Sunday Blue Laws

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As you’ve probably heard, a bill is moving through the State Legislature that would allow Sunday liquor sales. It enjoys modest popular support but is adamantly opposed by liquor store owners. Why all the hoopla?

Minnesota has historically restricted select secular and commercial activities as inappropriate on Sundays, the weekly observed Christian holiday. We still call these prohibitions Blue Laws. The process for determining which activities violate cultural norms involves a fascinating blend of self-interest, collective sentiment and reluctance to change. In other words, how to repeal a Blue Law is about as clear as mud.

Blue Laws once forbade many activities. At various points and in various cities, counties, and states, traveling, sports, public entertainment, alcoholic beverages and any buying or selling was prohibited. Today, most restrictions have been removed or disregarded. In Minnesota, the two notable Blue Law holdovers are bans on Sunday liquor and automobile sales. They continue because, chiefly, liquor store owners and automobile dealership owners don’t want to change.

Legislative change is tricky because repeal supporters-people who want to purchase booze at liquor stores on Sundays-aren’t remotely as well organized as liquor store owners. The sales ban repeal is one of those issues enjoying solid but indeterminate support. Consequently, something has to overcome monopolistic industry opposition. In Minnesota’s case, it’s a $5.2 billion budget deficit and the hope that a little more sales tax revenue will contribute to the deficit’s resolution.

I’ve never particularly understood why liquor store owners feel that they must open on Sundays. Lots of businesses are closed that day. And, since the store-opening decision is largely driven by cost-benefit analysis, it should be a simple calculation. Some years ago, brew-pub popularity induced some bars to add on-site brewing capacity. I’ve noticed that a lot of once shiny vat space has been reconverted back to bar area, suggesting that smart business people recognize and respond to market changes.

Embracing the free is market is apparently an entirely different activity than spouting free-market rhetoric while quietly using government’s authority to compel or prohibit commercial activity. Minnesota’s prosperity and economic growth depends on forward-looking risk-taking, not on naked self-interest masquerading as championing the public good. And, if you’re curious, I’m not crazy about the ban on wine and beer sales in grocery stores either.