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Shopping Season Advice from Adam Smith: Don't Stuff Your Soul into a Gift Box

It’s official. Bloated Black Friday has outgrown its britches and expanded into Thanksgiving Thursday. In her article, “Black Thursday, a turkey of an idea,” Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary reports that “This year, Wal-Mart will open at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving. That’s two hours earlier than last year. Toys R Us and Sears are also opening at 8 p.m.” Should we object to watching the national day of thanks, instituted by President George Washington in 1789, cede its 24 hours of territory to the day of deals? What would Adam Smith think of Black Friday? This past summer I heard philosopher David Schmidtz lecture on Adam Smith’s view of freedom. Schmidtz highlighted Adam Smith’s cautionary word to modern people accustomed to the opulent lifestyles made possible and prevalent by commercial society. In his book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” Smith issues a surprising warning, not against greed but against the threat of wanting too little—of shrinking our hopes and values to the size of trinkets (perhaps a Tiffany bauble or an iPhone 5?).
How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniences. They contrive new pockets, unknown in the clothes of other people, in order to carry a greater number. They walk about loaded with a multitude of baubles, in weight and sometimes in value not inferior to an ordinary Jew’s-box, some of which may sometimes be of some little use, but all of which might at all times be very well spared, and of which the whole utility is certainly not worth the fatigue of bearing the burden.
While trinkets, toys and baubles are not inherently burdensome, they can take on disproportionate importance and eclipse the people and purposes in our lives that deserve our quality time and attention. Michelle Singletary describes her unsuccessful attempt to keep people from shopping on Thanksgiving: “I pleaded with them to stay home and spend time with their families. I advocated for the workers who would have to leave their families to serve shoppers,” she reports. But family time isn’t the only casualty of the “pretty shiny thing” obsession described by Smith. Professor Schmidtz points out that when we will work overtime for trinkets, we fail to capitalize on the vast resources of time and information at our disposal. Where are our era’s Mozarts, Shakespeares and Goethes? In the days of the first Thanksgiving, drawing water out of wells, churning butter or chopping firewood might have monopolized people’s waking hours. This Black Friday we are more likely to spend our precious time ogling electronic storefronts or standing in line to score a deal. According to Adam Smith, we need to rethink our time-investment strategy so that the fruits of our labors and objects of true affection won’t fit into gift boxes or wind up on clearance next season.