I’ve seen a couple of exhortations to boycott Black Friday. I completely agree with critics of the consumer economy that consumption does not create economic growth, there is far more to life than material consumption, holiday spending has gotten excessive, etc., etc. Still, some are calling for boycotts of major retailers because they “ruin workers’ holidays.” The boycotters are off base for two reasons.
First, there’s a huge collective action problem here. If you’re not in line at Best Buy, that means more space for me. For the same reason competitive pressure makes cartels break down, a nationwide boycott isn’t likely to work. There are and have been exceptions, but I don’t expect this to be one of them.
Second, workplace disamenities will be reflected in wage rates. Suppose working all night on Thanksgiving is unattractive. If so, firms will have to pay a little more in order to attract workers to jobs where that is a possibility. I’m on board with those who want to be less consumption-focused, but even if we were to stage a successful boycott that made working at Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, and other places more comfortable, the reduced disamenity would ultimately manifest itself in lower wages. Just as people don’t live on bread alone, they are not compensated with wages alone. As David Henderson has said, you don’t help people by taking away from them the choices they actually make. You help by giving them more options. The new options for workers won’t come from the fact that you are avoiding the mall per se; they will come from the fact that your savings can be re-deployed in other productive enterprises.
I don’t plan to buy anything tomorrow, but it won’t be because I’m trying to make a social statement. There are a lot of great reasons to avoid the hustle and bustle of malls and shopping centers on Black Friday. “Helping workers” probably isn’t one of them.