No liberty is violated by Highland’s Sunday closures

Residents of the city of Highland are considering repealing a Sunday closure regulation. They alone will decide.

My interest in this debate is intellectual. My two cents is simply to remind Highland residents that there is no liberty interest at stake with your decision about Sunday closures, one way or another. In other words, no resident’s liberty is being violated by maintaining the Sunday closure regulation.

Argue for or against the regulation. Argue that the regulation is arbitrary and inconsistent. Argue in support of the regulation for religious or social reasons. Argue whatever you want … except … don’t argue that any individual’s liberty is being diminished because of the Sunday closure rule. It’s not. There is no liberty interest to drive down such-and-such a street, turn left onto whatever street and turn right into a store’s parking lot, park in space number 2, enter the store at 10 a.m. on Monday, choose Tide detergent from the shelf, use checkout lane 5, expect exact change from the cashier and have the exit doors open automatically at your behest.

Oh yeah, and nobody’s liberty interest is diminished if they can’t shop on Sunday. It’s not even diminished if they can buy bread but not liquor on Sunday. Might you be inconvenienced? Perhaps. Might you be upset? Perhaps. Might you be forced to make any other decision in life at that moment except go shopping? Of course. But none of those matters impinge on your fundamental liberty interests.

So why do these regulations tug at that liberty interest?

One reason, surely, is that none of us wants to be told what to do. Ever. Another reason is that this liberty interest could be at risk if authorities decided to shut down all marketplaces and the freedom to associate and trade and otherwise live your life ALL of the time. The residents of Highland might not know what that extreme sort of restriction feels like, but anyone living in the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1989 knew what that felt like.

So there is a line that can get crossed – a line between constructively creating a unique community and unconstructively creating a unique community. The problem for my freedom-loving friends is that the line is rarely apparent and only becomes apparent with a community’s maturation. As a few homes grow into a neighborhood and that neighborhood grows into a community and that community into a town and then a city, residents will experience growing pains.

Rep. John Dougall shared some comments from a city worker about the history of this controversy in Highland. The city worker explained,

Highland’s business regulations were originally adopted in 1995 (about 20 years after city was founded). At this time the days and hours of operation were not regulated. The Council adopted restrictions to the days and hours of operation in 2000. This action was done in conjunction with the review and approval of a conditional use permit for a Smith’s Grocery Store. As part of the conditional use permit the Council included a stipulation restricting the hours of operation. This was then expanded to all businesses in Highland with the exception of private clubs, home occupations, gas stations, and restaurants.

This narrative seems quite natural and typical – the period where no businesses existed, where businesses were introduced, how regulations were first implemented (and then changed by circumstances) and even the exceptions within the regulations. Successful communities have growing pains and responsible residents will take all of it into consideration as they make community decisions.

There is another reason why such regulations feel uncomfortable to freedom-loving people: Few people think about the property rights of the business owner. Notwithstanding what I’m about to argue, I believe property rights are increasingly and unnecessarily diminished these days. I believe property rights are the basis of economic freedom. That said, property rights are not exclusive. We don’t have a right to sell human flesh, for instance. And interestingly enough, we don’t have a right to sell appropriate products whenever we want, including on Sundays.

It could be very reasonable for a business to argue that its products are particularly suited for Sunday sales – I’m thinking a ski resort or a private club. But generally speaking a business that sells bread or tires or cough syrup hardly has a claim on Sunday as a “sacred” day to do business.

So, then, why would we want to have a Sunday closure regulation? Let’s put the onus on proponents of the law.

Here’s what I would argue. I think it is entirely appropriate to pass just laws that reflect the common will of the people. For instance, a predominantly LDS community who predominantly believe that nonessential services should be closed on Sunday is not an unreasonable public gesture. No minority rights are being violated because no individual’s liberty interests are being violated nor are any person’s business interests diminished UNLESS that business sells products primarily suited for Sunday sales.

But I would go further in my defense of Sunday closure laws. I think there is a secular interest in a “day of rest.” If Sunday is that day, so be it. But I do believe that the common good is served by taking a day off, collectively. Doing so sends a communal message that there are more important things than commerce – and a free society requires more things of us humans than just commerce. It helps to reinforce a community culture that insulates against the negative effects of modernity. In other words, it doesn’t hurt to have a community identity, and it doesn’t hurt a “reluctant” neighbor in that community to acknowledge that common identity.

Of course, as I’ve mentioned, communities are constantly in flux. Determining a community identity is fluid, and so we have ongoing public conversations. This is common in Utah. So have no fear. Debate until it hurts. Just do so honestly, not given to platitudes either way – either in the name of religion or in the name of liberty.

I’m a leave-me-alone conservative by disposition (though not intellectually) and I have many dear friends who feel likewise. But the truth is that there is no such thing as a leave-me-alone-completely world, and the debate in the city of Highland is proof of that.