Robert Frank responds on Black Friday

Here is the email I received from Bob:

I enjoyed your observations about my Black Friday op-ed in Thursday’s NYT.  If you’d permit me to respond, I’d propose to post something like this:

Like Tyler, I think we needn’t worry much about consumers who elect to wait in line for hours in the hope of getting bargains.  That’s indeed wasteful, as one of the commenters pointed out.  But it’s fairly easy to drop out of that game, and some, as Tyler speculates, may actually enjoy the process.

But the arms race that’s led to longer store hours poses a more serious problem for employees, many of whom had little choice but to truncate their holiday time with family and friends.

I had a recent conversation about this issue with a friend in Ithaca who owns a wine store. Traditionally, New York State wine merchants were not allowed to do business on Sundays.  But last year that restriction was repealed, and I asked my friend how the change had affected him.

His overall sales were about the same, he told me.  The change had thus been a clear negative from his perspective, since it meant that he and his wife were no longer able to spend Sundays together with their children.  The upside was that customers who lacked the foresight to shop in advance for their Sunday wine needs could now be accommodated.  If we’re willing to discount the cost of an inconvenience suffered by those who could easily have avoided it, the costs in this case seem clearly to outweigh the benefits.

Even so, an econometrician might find it difficult to convince a skeptic that the former Sunday closing mandate was justified.  Fortunately, a definitive answer to that question isn’t required for an assessment of my tax proposal, which isn’t nearly as costly as a flat prohibition.

Arms races arise because, as Charles Darwin saw clearly, important aspects of life are graded on the curve.  It’s not how strong or fast you are that matters, but rather whether you’re faster or stronger than your direct rivals.  And for merchants, it’s not how early you open that matters, but rather how your start time compares with rivals’.  If the stakes are sufficiently high in such cases, arms races are inevitable.

If staying open longer hours is misleadingly attractive to individual merchants, the best solution is not to prohibit longer hours but rather to make them less attractive by taxing them.  My 6-6-6 tax proposal doesn’t prohibit earlier store hours on Thanksgiving.  It simply makes them less attractive to individual merchants.

Many on the Right are quick to denounce such taxes as “social engineering”–which they usually define as using the tax code “to control our behavior, steer our choices, and change the way we live our lives.”  But that’s what virtually all laws do.  Stop signs are social engineering, as are prohibitions against theft and homicide.  Laws restrict behavior because individuals often choose to behave in ways that cause harm to others.  For someone who cares about personal liberty, discouraging harmful behavior by taxing it should be far less objectionable than prohibiting it outright.

Yet many on the Right suddenly lose their ability to think clearly when confronted by proposals to tax harmful behavior.  The first message I received in response to my Black Friday op-ed, for example, came from a chaired professor of philosophy who had this to say:  “Another sad elitist call for government to butt in so as to promote your special interest.  Maybe there are those who judge the black Friday ride just right for them.  But do you care?  You just know it should be shut down and so you will empower the government to do just that.  Well, over my dead body.”

Oh, please. Perhaps this professor is among those who denounce all taxation as theft.  But mature adults realize that we have to tax SOMETHING.  Right now, we tax many useful activities.  The payroll tax, for example, discourages hiring.  The income tax discourages savings.  Every dollar we can raise by taxing activities that cause harm to others is a dollar less we must raise by taxing beneficial activities.

In my recent book, The Darwin Economy, I defend the claim that taxes on activities that cause undue harm to others could generate more than enough revenue to balance the federal budget and restore our crumbling infrastructure.  We should tax congestion, noise, and pollution.  We should tax passenger vehicles by weight.  We should replace the income tax with a more steeply progressive tax on consumption. But until we’ve done all that, no champion of liberty has any cogent reason to oppose replacing taxes on useful activities with taxes on harmful ones.


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