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Why Sunday trading laws must return after the Olympics

We must not surrender every vision we have of a good society to the market.

Sunday trading laws have been suspended for eight weeks during the Olympics and Paralympics. Photograph: Getty Images.

What was your first time like? Did you enjoy it? No doubt you were nervous but then so was everyone else there, so that presumably made it a bit more exciting. Yes, it was an exquisite moment, for which we all waited so many years: the annoying tannoy wasn’t heard, the doors weren’t locked, and everyone was free to stroll the aisles of Tesco long into the balmy Sunday evening.

When George Osborne announced the "temporary" suspension of Sunday trading laws during the Olympics, there were many, myself included, who thought that temporary was the odd word out in that sentence. Obviously, we shouldn’t prejudge the situation and obviously we have to wait till the figures come out but only the most witless of chancellors would fail to seize every opportunity to drag the nation from the precipice of a triple-dip recession.

No surprise, then, to see City AM editor Allister Heath argue that now is the moment to throw open the doors once and for all or, more substantially, Alex Deane on ConservativeHome making the same case for reasons of economic growth, fairness, personal choice, and employment.

There is much to question in both these arguments. Circumventing Heath’s argument from exaggeration and trivialisation ("contrary to what many killjoys have been predicting over the years, at the time of writing this article, society appeared to have survived") there is Deane’s contention that we need to liberalise the laws because "the British high street is struggling". This does not persuade: deregulating opening hours for out-of-town mega-stores is unlikely to help the high street. Similarly, his claim that "the current rules are unfair… [as] some retailers can remain open while others are forced to close" invites us to imagine that a playing field populated by handful of Gullivers and a myriad of Lilliputians is already, somehow, fair.

Comparably fantastic is Deane’s explanation that Sunday trading rules actually inhibit "family and community activity": "if consumers no longer had to build their weekend schedule around restrictive shopping hours, they would have greater flexibility to engage in a wide range of activities." Build their weekend schedule? Around the fact that they can’t visit Asda at 7pm on a Sunday evening?

The more serious argument is apparently the economic one, of which Heath says, "I have never actually seen a cost-benefit analysis that showed that there would be a negative impact from liberalising retail." Apparently, that is, because it is hard to imagine that either writer would revise their position if the figures showed that liberalisation had but a marginal economic impact. On the contrary, both are clear that there is, for want of a better word, a moral argument at play. "The government should not limit the options of how individuals and families spend their Sundays", writes Deane. "Why not permanently allow consenting adults to shop freely on Sundays?" asks Heath.

Beneath the relatively trivial question of whether a small number of large shops should be able to open for a few extra hours one evening a week, lurks one of the biggest ethical fault lines of our age. For those on one side of this divide, the phrase "consenting adults" acts like a universal acid on any ethical discourse: are they adult? Are they informed? Do they consent? Well, what’s your problem them?

For others, their problem is that "I want" is not a sufficient argument, even when hitched to the tattered, over-used and hopelessly vague harm principle. Most of us are unwilling to embrace the moral relativism that this kind of approach demands. Notions of the good invariably come into play, as even the hardiest of economic libertarians will recognise – witness Professor Michael Sandel asking John Redwood whether he was up for a free market in kidneys.

OK, so perhaps that isn’t the most objective description of this ethical fault line, but that is partly my point. In all serious questions of the just and the good, there is no neutral place to stand. Sunday trading laws come and, I fear, go. But the question beneath them will remain: are we really prepared to surrender every vision we have of a good society to the freedom and alleged fairness of the market?