May 23, 2008

The Church vs. The Mall: The Case for Blue Laws

Starting in the 1950s, American states began to repeal "blue laws" that prohibited retail activity on Sundays. A new study by Jonathan Gruber of MIT and Daniel M. Hungerman of Notre Dame shows that the repeals of blue laws nationally has created both social and economic problems as a result.

The basic hypothesis of the study is that, with the repeal of blue laws, churches must now compete with secular activities, both from the perspective of time allocation (Do I go to church this morning or do I work, play or shop?) and of goods allocation (Do I spend my money at the mall or do I donate to the church?). Results from the survey show that the church suffers from both perspectives. In economics-speak, the opportunity cost of going to church has risen. With the blue laws, there was not as much opportunity cost to attending church. If you didn't go, you didn't have more options available to you (e.g., going shopping; the stores were closed). However, with the blue laws' repeal, now people had more options open to them. If you didn't want to attend church, then you could go shopping instead. One hour of worship at church meant that you had lost one hour's worth of secular activity.

Not surprisingly, church attendance has decreased, and donations to churches have fallen although, interestingly enough, donations to non-church charities didn't fall after the repeal of blue laws. The people who have stopped going to church were what the authors called "initially religious." Meaning, they used to be go to church but, with the repeal of the blue laws, they drifted away from the church. (However, as the authors also noted, the initially religious didn't become less religious, they only worshiped in a church less.) These "initially religious" are also the people who had the biggest increases in substance abuse. The authors found that among the initially religious, the more often they attended church in the past, the more likely they were to begin heavy drinking. For example, those who attended most frequently were 6.5% more likely to drink than those who didn't attend, which corresponded to about one-third of the difference in heavy drinking between weekly attendees and non-attendees. Likewise, those who who attended somewhat frequently were 3.3% more likely to drink. Results for marijuana consumption were very large (10.5% and 6.7%, respectively), while cocaine consumption increased somewhat less than alcohol consumption (4.1-4.3% for both very and somewhat frequent attendees).

The authors conclude with the following:

Absent strong negative externalities, there seems little argument for restricting the days of the week that commerce can take place. But religious participation may be one of those activities with such externalities. As such, secular regulations such as blue laws which promote religious participation can have external effects. Whether those external effects are sufficiently large to justify restrictions on commerce is an excellent question for future research.

In other words, should blue laws be put back onto the books? I would argue that there is a case for doing so. The Qur'an tells us several times to enjoin what is right, forbid what is wrong, and believe in Allah (e.g., 3:104, 3:110, 3:114, 22:41). Would not society benefit by encouraging religious participation, by having American Christians going back to church on Sundays, by donating money to churches (instead of spending it at the mall), and by reducing the amount of substance abuse (and hypocrisy), especially among those who used to be the best attendees? I would think so.

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and MIT's Quarterly Journal of Economics both have the final draft of the report available for download, but only for a fee; you can read an earlier draft of the paper here [pdf].

HT: Economist's View

Update: "Macro and Other Market Musings" has More on the Opportunity Cost of Religion.


JDsg said...

You might think this is sort of an odd topic for me, but I do have an interest in Economics (which, if you've been reading my blog, you may have noticed I've been writing more about recently). Of course, blue laws don't affect Muslims, but I feel that by writing this diary, I am helping to "enjoin the right, forbid the wrong," and encourage belief in Allah (swt), even if you don't go to a masjid to worship Him.

Kay said...

I don't think it is that bad of an idea. My entire Sunday mornings/afternoons were dedicated to church for about 18 years, and I'm not sure I would have been as into religion now had I not gone to church when I was younger.

alajnabiya said...

assalaamu 'alaikum,
Did church attendance go down because of the repeal of the laws, or was the already falling rate of church attendance a factor in the repeal of the laws? I don't see how those laws could have been considered constitutional, since they are promoting one faith over another. The correlation between decreasing church attendance and heavy drinking is very interesting, and ought to be studied more.

I like your posts on economic issues, although my brain isn't always ready to handle them at the times of day I get on the computer. (either first thing in the morning or when I am tired and ought to go to bed.) You certainly have an eclectic mix on your blog, economics, Islam, music, dancing movies, astronomy and an occasional Star Trek reference.

JDsg said...

Wa 'alaikum salaam.

Kay: Yeah, that sounds like me when I was growing up. This book I have on reading to your children stresses that the more books you have in your home and that parents read, the more likely your children will read too. I would imagine it's the same way with attending religious services. My parents met in the church, and our family was one of the "attend every Sunday"-type of parishioners. So our "being into religion" was probably ingrained into our personalities through all our experiences of going to church often enough. BTW, while I'm glad you liked the idea, you should check out this website where I cross-posted this essay; the reception there was much cooler to say the least. ;)

Alajnabiya: I suspect there are other factors that played a role as well, but the report didn't focus on any of them. Yes, they probably were unconstitutional, although comments on the other website where I posted this say that there are still a few areas in the US where blue laws remain in effect.

I'm glad you like the economic posts. (I'm glad *someone* does. ;) ) I will probably move my blog more into that area in the future. I actually get the most traffic when I write those types of posts. Right now, my articles on economics (including my posts about oil and commodities, like the food crisis) are making up about 40% of my readers. I actually set up a "more serious" blog (JJTM), but it hasn't been discovered just yet (despite having the same posts about economics). I guess this blog is too well established in the Google algorithms. ;)

As for being Mr. Eclectic, yeah, that's me. This blog is a reflection of my personality ... scatterbrained... er, the renaissance man. ;) And I really am interested in all that stuff you mentioned. I wish I had more time to write about some of the other things that *aren't* on the list. :)