Are Blue Laws "Necessary"?

In response to my post on the Massachusetts law requiring that supermarkets close on Thanksgiving, some commenters suggested such laws served a valuable purpose insofar as they insulate stores that wish to close on holidays from competition. Without such laws, these commenters suggest, it's only a matter of time before all stores open on holidays so as not to lose business to their competitors. In a sense, there is a "race to the bottom" that forces all market participants to adopt a suboptimal policy. From this perspective, the law does not deny "choice" as much as it privileges one choice (closing on holidays) over another (opening on holidays). In either instance, some stores (and employees and consumers) will be deprived of their choice, so the question becomes which policy option is preferrable.

This is an interesting argument -- and one that is theoretically plausible. But it is also possible (and I would suggest, more likely) that the competitive pressures are not all that great. Of course staying closed when one's competitors are open entails costs, but this does not mean one cannot compete unless one matches a competitor hour-for-hour, day-for-day. Staying open for the convenience of consumers is one of many areas in which companies will compete with one another, and all such choices involve trade-offs. Stores will only open on holidays if they believe doing so will generate enough business (or goodwill) to offset the costs. In this regard, staying open on holidays is not materially different than staying open late at night or offering additional, labor-intensive customer service.

What of the empirical evidence? Are there successful business enterprises that resist the competitive pressure to open on holidays and Sundays? Yes. William T. Bogart points out that Chick-Fil-A restaurants close on Sundays because of the religious preferences of the chain's founder. The chain is quite successful despite this policy, even opening stores in malls and airports despite the Sunday closure policy.

This should not be a surprise. We see the same dynamic in buisness hours in various industries, but we do not see a similar "race to the bottom." Some banks have extended hours and open on weekends, others do not. Some pharmacies are open 24 hours, others have very limited hours. The competitive dynamic does not produce a uniform policy. To the contrary, it encourages diversity to meet the diverse wnats and needs of consumers. Over all, most stores are open at those times when most consumers want to purcahse goods and services. And when it comes to holidays and Sundays, whether stores are open is more a function of consumer demand and manager preference, than anything else.

The bottom line: Were Massachusetts' blue laws repealed, many stores would still be closed on Thanksgiving, but forgetful or non-celebrating consumers would also be able purchase necessary items and the handful of stores that remained open.

The Blue Mass Group has its own anti-Blue-law post here.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Are Blue Laws "Necessary"?
  2. Working on Turkey Day:
david blue (mail) (www):
Thanks for the link, JNOV (get it? heh). This is one of those fascinating issues that splits liberals and conservatives in unpredictable ways. When I posted approvingly a few months ago about RI's effort to get rid of the last vestiges of their blue laws, the most vociferous objection I got was from an extremely conservative local blogger. And many of the liberal folks who comment on Blue Mass. Group - including one of my co-bloggers - have found my views similarly objectionable, while I find myself in agreement on this issue with Jeff Jacoby, of all people. Go figure.
11.28.2005 1:40pm
If you've ever visited Connecticut, you may have noticed that beer is sold in the supermarkets, but not after 8 PM. Many people assume that the 8 PM law is an old New England "blue law," but it is actually the result of a string of murderous armed robberies in the 1950's. Liquor stores were targets since they were often the only store on the block open late on Friday and Saturday nights. They pressured the legislature to enact the law mandating an 8 PM closing for all liquor stores -- not just the ones in isolated locations -- and prohibiting the sale of beer anywhere else after their closing time. It is obviously a protectionist measure -- albeit one enacted in response to a horrific crime spree.

Incidentally, in the publicity about the execution in Connecticut earlier this year, it was often stated that it was the "first one in 40 years." That last execution was the killer/robber responsible for the string of liquor store robberies that engendered this legislation.
11.28.2005 1:41pm
Stephen M (Ethesis) (www):
Costco hours should be compared to SAMS hours. A Costco pays its employees better and does roughly twice the dollar volume that a SAMS does.

I think the real answer is: sometimes.

Kind of like smoking bans. Once one has been in place for a while, the dining business actually does better. As a result, owners of dining places will individually fight against such bans while donating as a group to politicians who support them.

They need the bans to improve their business, but individually don't want to offend customers.
11.28.2005 2:00pm
Richard Bellamy (mail):
Of course, the decision to impose blue laws to protect a majority sentiment ends up primarily hurting the minority.

A law that forces stores to close on Sundays hurts not just consumers, but also Jewish-owned businesses that would prefer to remain open on Sundays, but closed on Saturdays. They are now faced with the decision of either "honoring" both Sabbaths, or only the Christian one. Quite apart from a "race to the bottom", the blue laws simply favor those who hold special the chosen day over those who would prefer to close at other times.


Meanwhile, my spouse is a Jewish nurse -- a career that as a whole can never have "off days" -- and has earned the love of her co-workers for for working every December 25 and Easter Sunday, in exchange for a few random weekdays off in mid-September and early April (the High Holidays and Passover). I, on the other hand, work in an "office" that is closed on Christmas and Easter, so I am forced to take off everybody's holidays.
11.28.2005 2:00pm
jimbino (mail):
"Race to the bottom" is begging the question. Let's get the gummint out of the business of pre-empting market decisions! Hobbling a person's work efforts or productivity of his capital investments for one day of every week should be prohibited as against the public policy of promoting both liberty and property!
11.28.2005 2:31pm
Joel B.:
You make some very strong points JNOV.

However, I don't know that Chick-Fil-A is a great example of how many companies can afford to resist competitive pressures to stay open.

Chick-Fil-A much like In-n-Out Burger is a privately held company.

Also, in some ways, especially for Chick-Fil-A which doesn't seem to have much of if at all California Presence, the closed on Sundays may actually help business by creating a brand image, that is valuable in the Bible Belt, such an image, that might not be as valuable in Massachusetts.

That's not to say that you're points probably aren't largely valid, but I think it's more complex. Big companies like Safeway, would have a harder time convincing shareholders that closing on TG, given the size of the forgetful consumer contingent was a sound business decision.
11.28.2005 2:32pm
cdow (mail):
I have always found that the blue laws in Massachusetts served only to protect the liquor stores' monopolies over sales of alcohol, and to shield them from competition from grocery and convenience stores that would sell beer and wine. Whatever laws were supposed to legislate morality now serve ther interests of vested monoopolies.

The Thanksgiving issue is probably more of a labor issue, I don't think you can force workers to work Thanksgiving, but if they want the overtime, then why not let them work?
11.28.2005 2:41pm
Gary McGath (www):
Equating the two types of "choice" is illegitimate. In one case, store owners are being deprived of their choice by the threat of fines and imprisonment; in the other, by being beaten by competition. Being "deprived" of a choice by the fact that it will lose out to competitors is a free-market phenomenon, and the government should not prevent it from happening.
11.28.2005 3:10pm
Juan Non-Volokh (mail) (www):
Joel B --

While Chick-Fil-A may have a strong southern presence, it is a national chain with many locations throughout California (though, as of yet, more in southern California than northern California). You can search locations and see where they are opening here. I'm sure the Sunday closure policy helps with their brand image -- and that's part of the point. Chick-Fil-A has turned a potential liability (being closed when competitors are open) into an asset with some consumers and prospective employees.

As a privately held company, Chick-Fil-A has more leeway than some firms might, but it's hardly the only data point. Look at the variety in the hours and days banks, drug stores, and other businesses are open. Or, better yet, drive around on a holiday in a jurisdiction where there are no mandatory closure laws and see what you find. In my experience, most stores still close on Easter and Thanksgiving (including those operated by publicly traded national companies) -- just as many close on Sundays -- suggesting that the complained-of competitive dynamic is not producing the effect that would justify the law.

11.28.2005 3:23pm
Joel B.:
I am a northern Californian, so that would explain my lack of seeing a Chick-Fil-A.

You're right that it's not the only data point, that banks, drug stores etc. all have a great deal of latitude to close on Thanksgiving. Of course, banks have a federal reserve system that drives bank towards specific holidays, in addition, because of certain federal laws, banks are required to be open (say to avoid a 4-day closure). And I think if you look within an industry, you see a lot of effects that day and hour competition has. 24-hour drive thrus were far less common 15 years ago, but as certain restaurants made a push in offering them, many more fast-food restaurants have followed suit. (I am not arguing for madatory closures after midnight).

And granted most stores still close on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and probably Easter (but less so), but that's probably also because for stores other than supermarkets there's no incentive to remain open. The holiday shopping on Thanksgiving contingent is very low, the problem then arises because the forgetful consumer (probably more so than the non-observant consumer) is a sizable business opportunity.

When I drive around in a place where there aren't mandatory closure laws, like California, I see a lot of supermarkets open, at least for some part of the day. It's not like in my neighborhood, Safeway was open, and Albertsons was closed, but within the same industry line, there was similar behavior, the one major variance seemed to have been in non-fast food restaurant's some choosing to open some choosing to close.

Now maybe that's good (for the supermarkets to be open), maybe it's bad, but I do think there is some element of a "race to the bottom." And so, for supermarkets (because who else is keeping these blue laws from being repealed) to try to keep blue laws on the books seems imminently reasonable. And as noted in one of the articles about the Mass. Blue Laws, it was another supermarket (not a puritanical consumer) who "tattled" on Whole Foods.

Hopefully, my post comes across as nothing more than the position it advocates, although I'm kind of advocating the other side of this issue, I have a great deal of respect for you JNoV.
11.28.2005 4:06pm
Henry679 (mail):
"Suboptimal"? If the market (i.e the wishes of consumers, as expressed through the exercise of their purchasing power) urges a certain result, how can it be "suboptimal"? Unless, of course, one has already come to the table toting the pre-ordained conclusion that being open on Thanksgiving (or whenever) is "bad" because it makes the Baby Jesus cry, or simply from some romaticized concept of "holidays", or whatever. In that case these discussions tend to be disingenuous anyway. And, of course, the labor market is equally free to "make its decision"—no one is required to accept any job that requires such work days, and if such positions turn out to be massively unpopular with potential workers, employers will have to adjust accordingly.

Just let the market handle it—drop dead government, please.
11.28.2005 4:53pm
countertop (mail):
In the recent Virginia gubernatorial race - after getting nowhere with the incompetant Jerry Kilgore cmapaign - I urged some contacts in Tim "Gun Banning Bigot" Kaine's campaign to come out in support of Sunday hunting.

The continuing ban on Sunday hunting in Virginia is probably one of the last blue law remnants remaining in the commonwealth and much defended by conservative christian groups (who want people in church). Of course, it is also fingered by the NRA amongst others as one of the biggest impedments to the future growth of hunting as a sport (and in fact is responsible for many declines in hunter numbers seen over the years as free time for hunting becomes more scarce).

I reasoned that it would be a good avenue for Kaine to split the gun owners and hunters from the religious right, and while I don't want to suggest it was ultimatly the reason Kilgore lost, It is worth noting the Gun Banning Bigot came out in support of Sunday hunting and won.
11.28.2005 5:33pm
John Hawkins (mail):
We should be highly skeptical of any proposed legislation based on the need to protect someone against competitive pressures. While it's possible there may be some such protections that are worthwhile, the odds are stacked against it. Consider...

Any such protection is based on the foundation that a large segement of the population will prefer to do business with an outfit engaged in unsavory practices, because of the benefits of those practices. It has to be a large segment of the population or there's no competitive pressure. And it has to be an unsavory practice, or there's nothing to complain about (good customer service, for instance, is certainly a competitive pressure, but not one we thing businesses need to be protected against). But those two things - large segment of the population and unsavory practice - create a bit of a conundrum. If a large segement of the populace likes the result of a practice, just how unsavory can it really be?
11.28.2005 5:42pm
Wintermute (www):
OK, let's throw pub closing times into this.

Do you buy the arguments that 24-hour pubs increase drunk driving and reduce some 9 to 5 workers' productivity too much? What about shift workers? Ties in with England's recent liberalization.
11.28.2005 5:49pm
Joshua (mail):
Gary McGath wrote:
Equating the two types of "choice" is illegitimate. In one case, store owners are being deprived of their choice by the threat of fines and imprisonment; in the other, by being beaten by competition. Being "deprived" of a choice by the fact that it will lose out to competitors is a free-market phenomenon, and the government should not prevent it from happening.
This had occurred to me too. In fact it's a little reminiscent over the frequent free-speech debates that come up anytime a private publisher or filmmaker engages in self-censorship due to pressure from activists or interest groups (e.g. CBS canceling the Reagans movie last year).

Both cases, on the face of it, beg the larger question of how free our conduct (be it our speech or our business practices) really is even when there is no government coercion involved, but in both cases the only apparent remedy is, well, government coercion to ward off the non-governmental negative consequences. So, it seems to me that in both cases having to grin and bear it is the lesser of two evils.

As for Chick-Fil-A, they aren't alone as far as national chains go. Franklin Covey (the day-planner company) also closes its stores on Sunday, which is somewhat awkward as many of their stores are located in indoor shopping malls that are open seven days a week.
11.28.2005 6:09pm
cdow (mail):
Virginia is strangely puritanical in some ways as well, which may help explain the no-hunting on Sundays thing.
(How is that enforceable?) Closing time in bars is at 2am, vrs 3am in the District of Columbia. And to buy liquor, you have to go to a state owned store, which is most inconvenient. Plus all the bars havve to serve some sort of food, unlike in DC.
11.28.2005 7:48pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
Do you buy the arguments that 24-hour pubs increase drunk driving and reduce some 9 to 5 workers' productivity too much?

No, I think that having bars close at a set hour only guarantees that you'll have a higher concentration of inebriated drivers out on the road at or about that hour. Whether that's a good thing (easier for law enforcement to stop them) or bad thing (increases the danger on the road) is another matter entirely.
11.28.2005 8:23pm
meep (mail) (www):
Well, I live in a rather Jewish area of Queens, and a whole bunch of businesses are closed Friday evening to Saturday evening (sometimes they'll open up Saturday night for a few hours, depending on the business). Some of the Asian restaurants are closed on Sundays. A dry cleaners run by a Chinese family is open Sunday - Friday, but closed on Saturday (they used to be open on Saturday, and closed on Sunday, but then they realized that one of the largest consumer groups in the area are Orthodox Jews.)

In any case, yes, these are privately owned businesses, but there's nothing that says every national company has to have uniform hours across the country. Many malls, operated by publicly held corporations, have different hours in different places -- where I used to live, they didn't open up til noon on Sundays, as everyone was at church anyway.

The short bit of the story is that if you let stores set their own hours, they will find some happy medium between when their customers want to shop and when employees are happy to work.
11.28.2005 8:48pm
countertop (mail):
cdow - A hunting license in Virginia only allows hunting between sunrise and sunset Monday through Saturday. In some cases - private reserves that breed their own captive birds and your own private property - there are exceptions to the rule, but overall no hunting is allowed on Sunday.

Its enforceable the same way other laws are - if your caught violating it (and its pretty obvious if you hear gun shots going off where there isn't a range) you are guilty of poaching. Jail, fine and a ban on the right to hunt in the future are some of the possible penalties.

As far as other national chains in the Chik Fil A model - McKee Foods who manufacture Little Debbie Cakes is owned and operated by 7th Day Adventists. While they will allow supermarkets and convenience stores to sell the cakes on Saturdays, they have a strict policy of not allowing employees to engage in business on Saturdays (whether said employee is a 7th Day Adventist or not). This ban extends beyond simply showing up to work and includes things such as business travel to conventions and promotions of sporting events taking place on a Saturday. I am familiar with it because I had solicited a large donation for a charity event here in DC and when they found out it took place on a Saturday they had to reverse the decision to give (we ended up getting them to make the donation in relation to a reception we held mid week instead).
11.28.2005 11:36pm
Tom Tildrum:
The Thanksgiving closing laws, like the laws in Germany preventing stores from being open in the evening, are predicated on the essentially sexist assumption that there is someone in the household who does not work outside the home and thus can complete the family's shopping during daytime, non-holiday hours. Even these days, I suspect that most of the people cooking Thanksgiving dinner, who in Massachusetts have to ensure that all of their shopping is completed on the workdays earlier in the week, are women.
11.29.2005 7:17am
Shawn (mail):
Wintermute, having lived in Las Vegas for 13 years, it is my belief that yes, closing bars at certain hours does deter drunkeness. Aside from my personal belief, there is certainly a large amount of drunk driver data from Vegas and Reno to provide a clearer answer.

Florida, where I now live, has a couple rather annoying blue laws: Grocery Stores cannot sell liquor--only beer and wine. And you cannot purchase any alcoholic beverage before noon on Sundays. (Was 1pm when I moved here in 2000 and recently changed to accomodate Sunday football shoppers.)

The only reason I can imagine for the Sunday alcohol restriction is Christian Churches. I guess they figure if you haven't gone to church by noon, you aren't going?

Something else that irks me is that voting is done in Christian churches here as well. I'm used to voting in public libraries and schools back in Vegas. Here in Florida, you get Jesus with your ballot. I vote in a church that is openly hostile to homosexuals so you can imagine how "fun" that is for me.
11.29.2005 8:50am
eddie (mail):
"Race to the bottom"

This assumes the answer before positing the question. Ultimately you can't have it both ways: Either there is a free market or there isn't. The government is for the people. Most of this discussion seems to have elided the origin of the blue laws in favor of some "neutral" discussion of the rational basis for same. Most blue laws find there origin in accomodations to religious beliefs. Period. If detering drunkenness is cited as a reason for restricting the sale of alcohol at certain times, then why only at such particular times?

Discussion of markets and rationality ignores the two thousand pound gorillas in the room: religion and monopolist corporations benefitting from the passive protection.

Bad faith, indeed.
11.29.2005 10:59am
i see how the choice argument could apply to vendors, although i think it's a loser for the reasons noted by Gary McGath. but blue laws certainly do not protect any consumer choices - in fact, they hurt consumers who choose to shop on holidays without providing any added benefit to those who had no intention of doing so in the first place. assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is purely a policy decision, we should favor the policy most beneficial to consumers.
11.29.2005 11:21am
randal (mail):
There's lots of cases when a majority of participants would prefer a market to go in a particular direction, but internal forces prevent it. In such cases, adding an artifical statutory restriction often improves the overall operation of the market. See: smoking bans, minimum wage.

The Chick-fil-a example is a red herring - that guy isn't acting optimally. Just because it's possible to do something and not be put out of business doesn't make it sensible, and it especially isn't something to build policy around. The Mass legislature isn't going to sit there hoping that their grocery chains get taken over by fundamentalists willing to leave money on the table.
11.29.2005 5:47pm
Michael Edward McNeil (mail) (www):
I've posted Alexis de Tocqueville's comments on the blue laws he encountered in Massachusetts and New York during the 30's of the 19th century, which you can read at the top of Impearls' main page or here.
11.30.2005 4:43pm