Blue Laws Are Unjust and Unequal

Tibor R. Machan

Sometimes, I will go out of my way to visit one of those outlet malls. Not only do they have some pretty good deals, but often I can find clothing that actually fits me—slightly oversized sweaters or short-sleeve shirts seem to get dumped there for the likes of me.

I was driving up I-85 in South Carolina one recent Sunday morning when I spotted what looked like a promising outlet mall. I got off the highway and headed to the stores—only to find that South Carolina blue laws coerce the stores not to open before 1:30 p.m. Now this is just the kind of small but not inconsequential restraint of trade I really detest—politicians forcing people to stay away from stores so they will more likely attend church (or some such noble motivation driving them to intrude on other people, just as politicians are wont to do for the sake of religion, the environment, social justice, or whatever). Not that these measures are so onerous—they are more a nuisance than anything except, of course, for the merchants (who are losing portions of their livelihood as a consequence of this paternalism) and certain customers (who may want something pronto).

So while perhaps blue laws pose no great harm to most of us, they are a potentially damaging intrusion for quite a few people. Their defenders write them off as a central feature of democracy, but that just won’t wash. Why does a majority of some community get away with doing something that no individual citizen could—namely, forcibly come between merchants and customers? Who are these people anyway, that when they come together and form a group that’s larger than those who don’t share their agenda, they get to impose their will on others and make them into subjects? Moreover, the activity they prohibit is peaceful and legal, entailing no violence against any innocent third party. The arrogance, nay, the viciousness of this!

But there is more. Some folks manage to be exempt from these so-called public policies—policies that turn out to bear only on some members of the public. At that South Carolina mall, the outlet stores were closed, but the food court was open and doing fine business. So were the adjacent gas stations, as well as several surrounding motels. Why may these people do brisk business all day Sunday, while others trying to do the very same thing—make a living from commerce—are forbidden to do so?

It is clear enough from this relatively innocuous example that most such paternalistic, nanny-state measures are deployed totally unfairly and completely in opposition to the spirit—even the letter—of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which holds that everyone must be treated by the authorities as “equal under the law.” Outlet stores are equal, all right—but not those making money from gasoline sales or renting rooms in their establishments, for some bizarre reason.

Now for my money, the more folks in South Carolina—or anywhere else, for that matter—who can beat these insane “public” blue-law measures the better. I look upon it as I once viewed draft dodging and still view tax dodging. I defend those who can evade blue laws as escapees from various degrees of tyranny.

But aside from that, it should be an embarrassment for the policy makers in these regions to realize just how they violate the principle of impartiality. For that is what they do as they so cavalierly intrude upon the lives of citizens when what they ought to be doing is securing their constituents’ inalienable individual rights to, among other things, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

It all goes to show how far America is from having fully appreciated the meaning of the revolution that created the country. The American Revolution was about demoting government, about removing it from the position as the sole sovereign in the land and assigning to individuals the sovereignty that had for centuries been accepted as belonging to the state. In some broad respects, the revolution did have its impact, making things more just across the land, and, by example, even across the globe. But in other respects, little has changed. The insidious “government habit” is alive and kicking, still producing the messes it has always produced.

South Carolina’s blue laws are just a tiny tip of the iceberg. What’s worse, of course, is that hardly any of America’s eager-beaver candidates for political office will set themselves against these intrusive measures. Of course not—they are all eager to get in on the game and impose on us their own agenda as soon as they get into office.

Tibor R. Machan

Tibor R. Machan is a Hoover research fellow, a fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, a professor emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University, and holds the R.C. Hoiles Endowed Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University


Sometimes, I will go out of my way to visit one of those outlet malls. Not only do they have some pretty good deals, but often I can find clothing that actually fits me—slightly oversized sweaters or short-sleeve shirts seem to get dumped there for the likes of me. I was driving up I-85 in …

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