, Salem, MA

November 27, 2012

Our view: 'Black Friday' illustrates the madness of the crowd

The Salem News

---- — Matt Drudge collected the headlines of the “Black Friday” shopping rush and posted them on his website, The Drudge Report:

“Man punched in face pulls gun on line-cutting shopper.”

“Customers run over in parking lot.”

“Men steal boy’s shopping bag.”

There are many more. Taken together, they raise a question: Have we, as a nation, gone insane?

All this violence and mayhem — for what? To save a few bucks on a toy or the latest electronic gadget? What is the cost to the human spirit of this frenzy of consumerism?

We’ve seen this kind of collective insanity before. Usually, it is associated with a hot new toy or product everyone wants. Recall the mania for Cabbage Patch Kids and Tickle Me Elmo dolls. People fear the supply will run out, so an atmosphere of panic buying develops.

This year, however, it seems there is no “Big New Thing.” Yet people are engaging in the same kind of desperate, driven shopping behavior for ordinary products they can buy any day.

Charles Mackay would understand it. In his 1841 classic “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” Mackay looked at, among other topics, obsessive economic behavior. One example he explored was the famous “Dutch tulip bubble” of the early 1600s, during which a mania for tulips drove prices for tulip bulbs sky-high.

While there is some dispute among economists today about the scope of the tulip bubble, the principle illustrated by Mackay remains: A fear of being “left behind” will drive people to assign great worth to things of little intrinsic value.

“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one,” Mackay wrote.

Retailers understand this behavior very well. Much has been written that some of the deals offered on Black Friday are no great deals at all. But no one wants to be the dupe who missed out on the “big sale.”

There’s nothing wrong with retailers putting items on sale to draw shoppers into their stores. The practice is as old as selling itself. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with being a bargain-hunting shopper. Seeking out the best deals can be an adventure.

But there is no call for angry, violent or even criminal behavior. Hordes of people rampaging through stores seeking the best for themselves is a mark of barbarism, not a civilized society. It is a corruption of the spirit of the holiday season.

It is our hope that everyone will find the gifts of their dreams under the Christmas tree this year — without sacrificing the spirit of peace and brotherhood that is the true meaning of the season.