The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 21, 2023 - 5:32:29

National holidays and government intervention

Jules van Schaijik, Nov 24, 2011

Black Friday has been encroaching on Thanksgiving Thursday for many years now, and this year, it seems, will be no different. There are some conflicting reports about the exact opening hours of various retail chains, but the trend is clear. According to one article

Sears will be open on Thanksgiving morning, while Toys 'R' Us will open its doors at 10 pm Thursday, its earliest Black Friday opening ever. Walmart's jumbo-sized supercenters won't close at all.

Many Americans are not happy with this trend, but they seem powerless to stop it. Their objections and petitions are easily brushed aside by an appeal to what consumers want. "Our guests," says a Target representative, as if it is all about hospitality,

have expressed that they would prefer to kick off their holiday shopping by heading out after their holiday celebrations rather than getting up in the middle of the night. [Notice how the option of waiting till the next day never even occurs; it has to be right after dinner or at 2 in the morning.]

This reasoning is usually coupled with another: "No one is forced to go shopping. If you prefer to spend the whole day with family and friends, then go ahead and do so. Just don't force your preferences on the rest of society."

But this way of thinking is off the mark. It fails to understand the real nature of the objections: it is not the loss of individual freedom* but the loss of a common good that so many people regret. Thanksgiving is supposed to be a communal celebration, in which we, together, as families and as a nation, count our blessings and give thanks for them. It is a day set apart for a communal and public purpose. Any and all unneccesary economic activity undermines that purpose. It slowly turns Thanksgiving into just another day in which some go to work, and others are off, some go shopping, and others stay home.

A true public holiday, then, is the sort of thing that can only be had if all agree to participate in it. If some don't, they do real harm by depriving the rest of the community of a definite and important good. (It's hard to have a family dinner if dad decides to stay at the office.) Retail stores cannot force anyone to go shopping, but definitely can spoil our Thanksgiving.

To my mind, therefore, this is an area in which government has an important role to play. It should forbid retail chains like Target and Sears, to open their doors on Thanksgiving day (or at midnight on the Friday after).   I see no other way to protect it's character as a national holiday. (But I am certainly open to other ideas. See the comment option below.)

In this respect, national holidays are much like national parks. The analogy suggested itself yesterday, as my wife and I took our children to visit Grand Canyon National Park. The Canyon itself is simply overwhelming in size and beauty. But I was also struck by, and grateful for, the way in which the whole area has been preserved and made accessible to the public. There was a visitor center, some transportation options, and there were paved paths. But none of these spoiled the beauty of the area. They just opened it up to the public. I can't imagine how this would have been possible without the government stepping in to protect the area from all sorts of economic activity. Without such intervention the area would surely have been spoiled.

What is true for national parks, is also true for national holidays. They are common and public goods that need to be nourished and protected. So, for once, I find myself wishing for more goverment intervention.  


* There is that too, however. Many employees of the large retail chains are forced to work.