Friday, December 25, 2009

Why Have Legal Holidays?

I can think of two possible justifications.

The first is that society wants to promote particular ideas, values, individuals, or the like; think of the 4th of July or President's Day.  I find this defense problematic: the choice of holidays is a vehicle for thought control.

The second justification asserts that legal holidays solve a co-ordination problem by helping people take vacations at the same time as their friends and relatives.  This view has some merit, but a countervailing effect is that promoting specific vacation days generates crowding at airports, beaches, and so on.

So I do not see a convincing justification for government holidays, especially not those associated with religion.

Yes, I know I am a Scrooge.  My family has been telling me this for years.

22 comments:

Rick said...

I couldn't agree with you more. While everyone is entitled to some personal time, closing government offices for religious holidays is just wrong.

How much are taxpaying shelling out for government employees to NOT work?

I'm self employed and when I don't work, I don't get paid. I need a job like a Congressman. Get paid to be incompetent and then retire and get paid to not work.

RIck

Shake Mouth said...

Without so much as a glance at Wikipedia, I'd bet Columbus Day, Labor Day, Independence Day, and Veteran's Day (and to a lesser extent President's Day, Mother's Day, etc.) started as holidays that a particular politician or administration promoted as a gimmick to get people to associate them with a day off from work and/or other fun and/or patriotic things. Then, long after those politicians and administrations were gone, the holidays stuck.

(Not that a stateless society would be without its holidays, either...my guess is that our instinct to perform mass rituals whose primary function is not a practical one is at least as old as our heritage of monopolized coercive power.)

I do wonder, though: what is the rule about legal holidays? Are they really "legal" in any sense? Can anybody be penalized for scheduling employees on Christmas, or driving their taxi on Columbus Day?

If there is no legal foundation under these holidays, I wonder why so many businesses close on Christmas, even in very secular or non-Christian areas. Even people celebrating Christmas might occasionally like to buy (or return!) things on December 25th, or get customer service, or eat out, etc. Plus I know a lot of people who would probably rather be at work making money than at home being driven crazy. I don't own a business myself so I don't know if I'm way off the mark here, but it seems like everyone just agrees to take a hit on national holidays. Like lemmings.

Shannon Gifford said...

No, no, no: not a scrooge, a grinch! Totally different concept, and far more susceptible to treatment through the usual Christmasy nostrums ("all he needs is a little love", etc.). With the proper skill you could have been milking this for weeks.

More generally, you may be looking at this through the wrong end of the telescope. If legal holidays skew choices about flying, that's an opportunity! We are at the airport right now, and everyone is cheerful and efficient, all the lines are short, the TSA took the day off (ok, maybe not), and all the flights are on time.

Milton Recht said...

Historically, I would think it was for the benefit of the financial system. An official holiday allowed a bank to close without generating public fear that the bank was suffering financial stress and feared a run on its deposits.

Using a standardized holiday observance to close would squelch all rumors of financial troubles at a bank as the reason for its closing on that day and prevent a bank panic occurring from the closing after it reopened.

Rob Ross said...

I think you're wrong. Having national days of civic celebration is perfectly legitimate. The fact that those days are labeled is mostly irrelevant. What's important is that the society collectively reflects on itself, its values, and its achievements. There is a power to collective action beyond the physical ends it achieves. That's why Muslims pray in a prescriptive way - the knowledge that you are in sync with the entire Nation of Islam is a source of collective consciousness.

Not everything in life can be captured in a balance sheet.

Shake Mouth said...

@Milton: But why do the banks have to close on an extra day in the first place??

@Rob: I submit that feeling in sync with a lot of other people or feeling pride in the accomplishments and values of one's culture is something that can indeed be added to a balance sheet.

Milton Recht said...

@Shake Mouth: I was suggesting that legal standardizations of holidays that a bank would normally close (and not an extra day) as opposed to employer selection of holidays was to prevent rumors about a particular bank choosing a different day of observance from other banks and businesses to close. For example, suppose you go to your bank and on that day it is closed in observance of some holiday, but it is a few days earlier than other businesses might close for the observance. Bank customers might suspect a different motive. States prohibit banks from closing on any business day except legally recognized holidays.

Shake Mouth said...

@Milton: Remarkable! I had no idea the government could dictate a private firm's working hours!

Still, I'm not sure I agree with your hypothesis about standardizing closures to prevent bank runs. A bank could advertise in advance that it will observe a holiday on a certain date, and a clearly worded sign on the bank entrance would be enough to reassure those who didn't get the memo. (All this could be done before the invention of the telephone or even the telegraph.) Suspecting a different motive for closing doesn't seem reasonable.

Besides, weren't the observance days for holidays standardized long before the laws for American banks were written?

Milton Recht said...

@Shake Mouth: You're kidding. State blue laws requiring retail stores close on Sundays; laws restricting liquor store and bar hours, etc.

Legal holidays began around Lincoln's time and later. Thanksgiving was one of the earliest as was Decoration day (now Memorial day) for civil war dead.

Banking laws existed in the very early 1800s. NY required banks to register with the state and file corporate papers as early as 1820s and 1830s. In the 1840-50 period NY had a state fund to pay off on a bank's bad debts. Other states also had early banking laws. Banks were too essential to commerce not to be regulated early on. While people celebrated holidays before state and federal laws, government laws standardized the day of observance. While common observance serves many purposes, the passage of a law was often motivated by commercial prodding and for commercial reasons.

Shake Mouth said...

@Milton: Thanks for the info.

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