April 11, 2009

Easter absurdities

New Zealand's laws about opening stores on Easter are more than a little silly. As the New Zealand Herald summarizes it:

Currently the law bans all but a few retailers such as service stations, cafes and dairies from trading on Easter Sunday.

Some tourist destinations in Queenstown and Taupo are also exempt.

Last year dozens of shops ignored the ban, many choosing to pay a $1000 fine in order to keep the doors open.

While New Zealand has no state religion, here we have a law that restricts trading on a religious holiday. I think it might be a legitimate state interest to restrict stores opening on days of genuine national significance like Waitangi Day and ANZAC Day, but Easter? Why should we compel people to recognize a religious holiday?

But the absurdity as always is in the exceptions. It's OK for supermarkets in tourist areas like Queenstown and Taupo to open, but not for supermarkets in "residential" areas to open. Quite what the animating principle behind this distinction is, I don't know. Public and religious holidays are important, but not when there's money to be made off tourists. Every principle has its price. Back in the olden days (1943 - 1977) when hardly any stores were open in New Zealand on the weekends similar absurdities sprung up. New Brighton near Christchurch and Paraparaumu near Wellington were defined—for the purposes of regulating store opening hours—to be outside Christchurch and Wellington because they were beach destinations. So, it was OK for shop assistants in those towns to work on the weekends but not elsewhere.

The Herald also reports that one proposed resolution to this situation is to take New Zealand back to another historical absurdity: the local referendum on store opening hours: "The most recent bill, drafted by Rotorua MP Todd McClay to be introduced to parliament's ballot, calls for a law change allowing local communities to decide whether shops would open."

This was the early twentieth century way of dealing with the problem in New Zealand. Every town, from the cities like Auckland and Wellington to the smallest town with just a few stores, had a referendum on whether stores would open on Wednesday afternoon or Saturday afternoon. The day stores were closed was known as the "half-holiday." The referendum had the appeal of being democratic, of letting the citizens and consumers determine when stores would open, but it had the classic problem of democracy: minority groups were compelled to accept the wishes of majorities. The store that wished to open on Wednesdays was instead made to open on Saturday, when the community might have benefited from having some open one day, and others open the other day.

The cost and internal contradictions of such a system were obvious by the 1930s, and the Labour government's response was instead to regulate in 1944 that virtually no stores be open on the weekend. When the National government liberalised the law somewhat in the 1950s it introduced a byzantine list of what was acceptable to sell on the weekend, necessities being OK and luxuries having to wait until 9am on Monday. A cottage industry in lockable covers to put over the "luxuries" (like magazines) during the weekend developed. The moral principle of restricting store hours had been whittled away. Why it was OK to sell milk but not magazines was not clear.

A similar absurdity is present with the Easter trading laws. Why it's OK to have smaller grocery stores open in every city, and the larger ones in some places but not in others, is not at all clear. The only clear principle is that everything closes by diktat or store owners get to make up their own minds. I suspect that many would choose to close, in the same way that few non-grocery/liquor/pharmacy stores in New Zealand take up their freedom to be open at 9.30pm at night.

Posted by eroberts at 11:09 PM