Lee Schafer
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Jim Surdyk’s decision to open his liquor store in Minneapolis on a Sunday months before it was legal to do so was a far ­bigger act than just selling some wine and beer.

Sure, no real harm may have been done to the general public in Minneapolis, but it wasn’t a trivial event. We are living in a time when the foundation of our Western culture, including what’s called the rule of law, has had people chipping away at it. Then here comes a high profile business owner eager to take his own swing.

Unless you’ve been off the grid, you’ve undoubtedly heard that Surdyk’s opened a week ago on Sunday morning. As everyone in the industry knows, including Jim Surdyk, retailing alcohol on Sunday won’t be legal until a new law just passed by the Legislature goes into effect in July.

It seems clear he hoped to “get away with it,” in the sense that any fines would be easily made up by the additional sales and just by enjoying the media spotlight. He sure wasn’t trying to sneak something by on a sleepy Sunday morning.

“Yes … you heard right!” was how Surdyk’s own Twitter account put it just after the store opened last Sunday. The regulatory authorities in Minneapolis heard it right, too, of course. The city’s license manager first telephoned and when that got nowhere he dropped by the store.

As for what happened next, it’s hard to top the ­language of the city’s letter that was released last week. Surdyk, it noted, “knowingly and intentionally refused to abide by a lawful notice and order to cease such illegal sales.” The party apparently rolled on until 6 p.m.

Surdyk was not returning calls from the Star Tribune last week, and to be fair, one small business owner is nothing compared with the threats from other quarters to our widely held belief in the rule of law. What stands out is just how brazen this was, and at a store a lot of us know.

The rule of law is one of those terms with a meaning imprecise enough that professors still argue about it, and no, it’s not really about liquor laws. A layman’s understanding is that it’s a powerful promise, that no government authority, not a prince or a president, can just make it up as he goes along and decide things on a whim. The government — from the president on down — has to abide by the same clear set of rules everybody else does in a society.

It arose from a big block of moral and philosophical thought that we inherited from ancient civilizations like the Greeks. This includes things like a belief in applying reason and facts to solve our problems and that individuals really matter and can collectively use the tools of democracy to govern themselves.

A clear set of laws we all agreed to follow is how we manage to give people enough freedom to do largely what they want while also providing a way to resolve the conflicts that are bound to arise when lots of people and even competing businesses share the same small part of the world.

For business owners, this doesn’t just mean that governments can’t arbitrarily punish them. It also means knowing with confidence that out in the market the same rules will get applied to everyone. This means that a liquor store owner won’t need to open for business on a Sunday until July, safe in the knowledge that no competitors will be open, either.

The city of Minneapolis didn’t even take a full day after the Surdyk’s Sunday sale to announce a $2,000 fine and a 30-day suspension of Surdyk’s ­off-sale liquor license. That prompt enforcement maybe makes it seem like the system really works, yet we have to understand that our system also depends on voluntary compliance. That means following the rules because that’s the right thing to do, whether or not inspectors ever show up.

A great example of voluntary compliance is paying taxes. The last estimate of tax compliance shows that Americans paid about 82 cents out of every dollar of tax owed. While some countries do a little better, our compliance rate is still good. But the experts seem to suspect that the next time that number gets published it’s going to have declined.

It’s not just that the Internal Revenue Service staffing to do enforcement has slipped. It’s that voluntary compliance with tax laws goes down when the trust in government declines. There’s been poll result after poll result in recent years showing that, with people increasingly frustrated about lacking a voice in government.

The rule of law takes a beating in this kind of political environment, too. It’s particularly telling that one in four respondents in a February survey said President Donald Trump should be able to overturn a judge’s decision if he happened to disagree with it.

Our new president isn’t exactly a staunch defender of our traditional sense of the rule of law, of course. He has done things like complaining that our laws forbidding Americans to bribe people when doing business abroad are “horrible” and criticizing a “so-called judge” for taking “law enforcement away from our country.”

Yet this is an issue that seems to have partisans on both sides with blind spots, and critics of the president seem to have a cart-and-horse problem when discussing issues like a perceived threat to our rule of law. It seems far more accurate to call his election as president a result of what’s been happening in our culture, not the cause of it.

There’s little reason to hope so far this year that the leaders in Washington will provide a lot of help anytime soon for shoring up our belief in the rule of law. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing that can be done, however, maybe even with business owners leading the way.

It means showing respect for the laws we have, even ones impossible to agree with, by what gets said within earshot of employees, suppliers and customers. It means showing respect for the institutions that uphold them by treating inspectors well when they come knocking.

If that kind of support for the laws can’t be managed, well, at least do no harm. Comply.

lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302