Giving Thanks for the Right to Retail

Sam Karnick Heartland Institute
Published November 20, 2013

Retail stores are opening even earlier than usual for their annual Black Friday sales this year, in an intensifying competition for scarce consumer dollars. Big retailers such as Target, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Best Buy, Sears, and Toys R Us will open Thursday night and feature “doorbuster” bargains to lure tryptophan-laden customers into their emporia (if they can fit through the doors). It’s certainly understandable: Online stores are open all day, every day, and this year’s gap between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day is six days shorter than usual.

Although it may appear unseemly, such competition is inevitable if people are free to choose how and when to shop. People nostalgic for simpler times, however, are publicly complaining about the stores being open, arguing the lure of short-term bargains intrudes on their family time. Many have protested outside retail outlets.

Sensing an irresistible opportunity for political posturing, an Ohio Democrat state representative says he wants to combat the practice by forcing retailers to pay their workers triple on ThanksgivingLos Angeles Times columnist goes even further, arguing, “We need a federal blue law, making it against the law to open on Sundays and certain holidays.” Presumably he believes this War on Shopping will be more successful than the War on Poverty and the Iraq and Afghan wars.

It’s true that stores weren’t open on Thanksgiving in years past, and we stoically endured the adversity with all the stalwart courage this nation of pioneers is known for. It’s also true that the mad rush of people into shopping centers on once-holy days such as Thanksgiving suggests a coarsening of the nation’s culture and a possibly disturbing transformation of people’s values. Much less compelling, however, is the complaint about having to choose between family time and doorbuster sales—anyone who considers that a difficult choice must be enjoying an exceedingly placid existence and ought to toughen up.

Retail workers, by contrast, don’t get any choice in the matter, and one must feel sympathy for them. Nonetheless, sympathy, nostalgia, and a desire to avoid choices are exceedingly poor reasons on which to base laws. It’s important to bear in mind a principle essential to the maintenance of a free society: not everything that isn’t good should be illegal. Regardless of whether people should want to shop on Thanksgiving or retailers should open their stores to them, it’s good that it’s legal for them to do so. That’s what freedom is all about, and I remain thankful for it.