Acton Commentary

Blue Laws and Black Friday

The yearly frenzy surrounding “Black Friday” has a different flavor this time around, as the nation continues to struggle with a lagging economy, lackluster employment numbers, and inconsistent consumer confidence indicators. The biggest shopping day of the year, called “black” because it is traditionally the day that retailers begin to turn a profit, increasingly stands as testimony to our national ambivalence toward all things economic. It’s no secret that many businesses and families are having trouble making ends meet, and the promise of a revitalized spending spree by consumers has many people looking eagerly for a “Black Friday” miracle. Shoppers around the country have already been camping out for days ahead of this week’s secular shopping holiday.

But the juxtaposition between Thanksgiving and Black Friday offers us a chance to reflect more deeply on the meaning of material goods, work, and the common wealth of our national community. In response to the perception that consumers would prefer to go shopping for deals on Thursday night rather than early Friday morning, many retailers are launching their specials at midnight on Thursday and earlier. As Duncan Mac Naughton, chief merchandising officer for Walmart in the United States said recently, “Our customers told us they would rather stay up late to shop than get up early, so we’re going to hold special events on Thanksgiving and Black Friday.” The earlier openings and launch of specials have created some tension with employees, however, who are increasingly seeing their holiday time with friends and family shortened by work responsibilities that seem to begin earlier and earlier every year.

So while many consumers would rather stay out late than wake up early, they are also increasingly responsible for what this means for workers at stores like Best Buy, Target, and Walmart. A variety of polls have shown that the public generally thinks that stores should be closed on Thanksgiving, but they may not always recognize what their shopping habits require of retailers. Shoppers need to realize that they cannot have it both ways. Our decisions have real consequences for the lives of those who work in retail and a host of other industries.

To be sure, there are many workers who are rightfully thankful to have a job at all this Thanksgiving, and take the view that the gift of work, even when it has to happen on a holiday, is far better than no work at all. But the increasing encroachment of the shopping culture on holidays like Thanksgiving (and more often on weekly days of worship) shows that the blessings of work and consumption do have absolute moral limits. These limits are exemplified in the idea of the Sabbath in the Jewish and Christian traditions. The commandment to “remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Ex. 20:8) points to the moral imperative that economic efforts are not to tyrannize other parts of our life, including our communal worship and familial relationships. We don’t need to be strict Sabbatarians to recognize that there needs to be structured space and time in our lives for things not directly related to the pursuit of our “daily bread.”

The solution to the complex problems posed by these considerations is not to be found in the enactment of some kind of “blue laws” intended to legally limit otherwise licit market activity. Instead, shoppers must come to realize that their behavior in the marketplace is subject to moral consideration, and that consumption choices have consequences for how others are able to live their lives. For some of us that might mean sleeping in on Friday rather than camping out on Thursday.

Black Friday sales shouldn’t be illegal. But in a culture that properly values and relates material goods and spiritual blessings, and recognizes the created rhythm between work and rest, such sales and their consequences would remain where they belong: the other six days.