The Case for Regulating Thanksgiving Thursday and Black Friday

Government should intervene to save Thanksgiving.

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Shoppers throng Brea Mall during Black Friday shopping on Friday, Nov. 29, 2013, in Brea, Calif.
Black Friday gets under way with large crowds and some injuries reported throughout the country.

The bad news is that retail sales were down for the Black Friday weekend. The good news is that no one got trampled to death. At the Best Buy near our home, shoppers began pitching tents on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. I suppose that is a good thing if your idea of Thanksgiving is camping in a big box parking lot. Otherwise it's just absurd. 

I spent a lot of years at the University of Chicago, where economists take a dim view of regulation in general and an even dimmer view of regulations that limit consumer choice, such as "blue laws" that restrict when retail stores can be open (e.g. no shopping on Sunday) or at what times certain products can be sold (e.g. no booze before noon).

At the risk of making Milton Friedman roll over in his grave, I would strongly endorse just about any law that keeps stores closed on Thanksgiving. Black Friday has turned into an arms race that is making everyone worse off: shoppers, workers and even retailers.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Retailers are understandably competing for an edge by offering big discounts earlier than the competition. Other stores respond, as they must. To take advantage of these new Thursday price wars, consumers skip pumpkin pie, or even the turkey. Of course, once shoppers are willing to spend Thanksgiving filling a cart with electronics, employees have to be there, too.

That's the arms race part. Every party to this shopping melee is acting rationally, but collectively they have made a mockery of Thanksgiving for no purpose whatsoever. That's not my inner Puritan speaking; it's basic logic. Everyone could get the same deals on the same stuff if they started shopping on Friday morning instead.

The economist and arms control expert Thomas Schelling won a Nobel Prize for (among other things) drawing attention to these kinds of situations in which perfectly rational behavior leads to irrational outcomes. In a traditional arms race, for example, countries spend more and more resources trying to gain a strategic advantage over a potential enemy, such as the U.S. and the Soviet Union. But they typically spend more and more resources just to end up in the same basic place.

[Read Susan Milligan: Boycott Stores That Open for Black Friday on Thanksgiving]

When both countries have 10,000 nuclear weapons, it's clear that they could have achieved the same strategic parity at lower cost by agreeing to have one nuclear weapon each, or none at all. Instead, they compete aggressively to no advantage in the end.

Just like offering Black Friday deals earlier and earlier.

As with a real arms race, the question is how to stop it. Consumers can't collectively agree to avoid shopping on Thanksgiving; there is no mechanism for making that happen.

Retailers cannot agree to keep their doors closed on Thanksgiving. That would be an antitrust violation.

Only government can save us from ourselves. This is one of the singular cases in which government (presumably state governments) can make us better off by limiting our choices. If the stores can't open on Thanksgiving Thursday by law, then everyone can load up on TVs, phones and toys on Friday.

We could get the items at the same prices in the same stores – and enjoy Thanksgiving, too.

  • Read Pat Garofalo on how Black Friday became Black Thursday for workers.
  • Read Nina Rees on three things lawmakers can do to help teachers this holiday season.
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