By Benje Patterson*
Although New Zealand society has moved on a long way since the days when a Christian majority prevented Sunday retail trade, the Easter trading law framework still remains firmly aligned to Christian values.
But with the 2013 Census showing that the number of people affiliated with Christian religions no longer forms the majority of New Zealanders, the time has come to revisit the motivations behind laws governing Easter trading.
I’m not normally one to care about Easter trading hours, but this year I bore the brunt of this country’s antiquated trading laws.
I spent a cold Easter shivering near Methven, without polyprops that I would have bought had the shops been open on Good Friday when I departed civilisation.
This predicament got me wondering – if Christians no longer form the majority, then what other motivations can the Government have for continuing to justify inconveniencing a demanding Generation Y lad like myself by forcing shops to close their doors on certain public holidays?
As I thought of potential motivations, I turned to another confrontation I have had with restrictive trading hours.
During two years of post-graduate study in Germany, I was forced to always keep a well-stocked pantry as German laws still stipulate that most shops (including supermarkets) must close on Sundays. This practice was infuriating, but most Germans would earnestly justify the restrictions to me by expressing concern for the plight of retail workers.
Germans would say that retail employees were overworked and needed to be guaranteed a day off that aligned with when friends and family also had time off.
A quick trawl through the web suggests these comments conform to one of the most common types of arguments for restricting retail trading hours outside of preserving the sanctity of the Sabbath or other religious holidays.
But even though these concerns for workers’ welfare may seem reasonable to many at face value, I don’t find the logic to be a compelling justification for restricting retail opening hours in the New Zealand context.
Data from the 2013 Census shows that workers in the retail sector are on average younger and are more likely to work part-time than in other parts of the New Zealand economy.
The reason for this overrepresentation of younger workers in the retail sector is probably because young people are drawn to the availability of casual weekend and holiday work that can easily be fitted around education commitments. As a result, forcing shops to close at Easter may actually be reducing the welfare of these willing young workers by limiting their opportunities to work for supplementary income.
Having so far failed in my search for a reasonable justification for restricting Easter trading in New Zealand, my mind then turned to a more consumer-orientated motivation that transcends religion and worker welfare.
Perhaps I am the odd one out and the majority of society want the shops to be closed at Easter simply because it allows them to enjoy a quiet day, free of temptations to hit the shops and consume.
Although my fear of another cold Easter means that I am still fundamentally opposed to this view, my economist hat tells me that if this type of reasoning is a true expression of society’s democratic will, then even I would be forced to grudgingly accept a continuation of Easter trading restrictions.
After all, government intervention would be necessary to solve a coordination problem between those opposed to Easter trading and those in favour of allowing it.
The coordination problem ensues because even if the majority of society feels better by having the shops closed, there is a group like me that is made to feel worse by not having them open. While the pain of the latter group may be miniscule compared to the pleasure the majority feel from having the shops closed, it would be impractical for the two groups to co-ordinate negotiations and form a binding agreement to solve the matter.
As a result, intervention by an overarching central government authority is necessary to ensure shops only open at times that reflect the wish of the majority of society. To enforce these laws, the Government must also implement a punishment system to impose a cost on those that break the law.
Currently in New Zealand the fine for opening at Easter is only $1,000. But given the number of Garden Centres that flout Easter trading laws every year, it is clear that the fine has not been set high enough to effectively enforce the law.
Rather than half-heartedly continuing to persevere with policing these laws, the Government should re-examine whether our Easter trading framework is still a reflection of broader society’s will.
I for one don’t want to be inconvenienced again next Easter, but I promise I will quit complaining if I truly am in the minority.
Benje Patterson is an economist at Infometrics. You can contact him here »