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The Circle Bastiat

Germany loosens up about regulating store hours

Once strict laws about when shops can open and close are starting to be relaxed, much to the chagrin of labor unions and regulators

By Jeffrey A. TuckerGuest blogger / May 24, 2011

Anne Sauebrey an employee at ZwoVier, sweeps snow at the boutique store in Berlin on Dec. 18, 2010. The store is owned and run by an independent business owner, Meike Steinert and her mother. Laws in Germany that regulate when stores can open and close are starting to become more relaxed.

Ann Hermes / Staff / File

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A really cool thing is happening in Germany. After decades of strict laws regulating when stores can open and close (Ladenschlussgesetz), the laws are progressively liberalizing. Since 2006, the decision has been left to the individual states. Whereas commercial establishments once could not open their doors before 6 a.m. or keep them open past 10 p.m., now many open earlier and close later.

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Consumers are celebrating, while labor unions and regulators are not.

In the United States, we have no national history of such laws, apart from restrictions on Sunday shopping, which are left to the states and counties. And even with these so-called blue laws, the general trend has been toward liberalization.

The subject intrigues me because it is like many other such subjects that touch on the very viability of liberty itself. If you were to think this issue through using what F.A. Hayek calls a "constructivist" mindset — the presumption that society is a giant Lego model with pieces that must be assembled and disassembled at will — it is not difficult to dream up many seemingly reasonable arguments for why a commercial society must have such laws. Do we really want to leave such things to the "anarchy of the market"?

So let's just pretend to be statist constructivists for a moment and see how this works.

  • If we leave it to individual stores to set opening and closing times, it is perfectly obvious that stores that open earlier and stay open later will have an advantage over those that do not. This fact alone will inspire a rat race of commercial frenzy that will push profit over quality of life.
  • A civilized home business will stand no chance against a heavily capitalized corporation that can more easily absorb the high costs of early openings and late closings. There are electrical bills to pay and labor costs involved that a small business — which might have better products and services — will not be able to afford.
  • So, what is the undercapitalized company going to do? It will have to choose between adopting the hypercapitalistic focus of its competitors or closing its doors. In a footrace, all competitors have the same starting line. One would never permit one runner to start at a different place from the others. Why should we permit this in enterprise?
  • Competition is fine, but the rules have to be the same for everyone.
  • And think of the workers. They have families. They need downtime. They need a breather to have dinner with others, read books, and cultivate a civilized lifestyle. No one should be forced to choose between working ridiculously early (or late) and having no job. And yet this will surely be the result if we just let any business open or close whenever it wants to.
  • As for the consumers, surely people can figure out a way to get their shopping done between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. That leaves a solid eight hours for sleep, which everyone needs.
  • If we let people shop at any hour, consumers will naturally choose times when the streets aren't crowded and the store lines are shorter, which means that businesses will have to stay open ridiculously long, even 24 hours a day! But with mandatory limits on commercial hours, consumers will figure out that they need to get real lives and stop commercializing the whole of them.
  • And think about this: what kind of society do we want to be? Do we want the entire nation engulfed in the buying and selling of things, or do we believe that there are other human values that must be part of the balance? If we permit the anarchy of the market to rule, we make profit and loss the measure of all human success and failure. This is not something anyone wants.