Does the Market Preserve or Wreck Tradition?

The fliers from the local grocery arrive by the day.

“Buy your complete holiday meal for $40!”

To me, this is just thrilling. You get a golden brown baked turkey, rolls, salad, stuffing, cranberries, and the rest of the works, straight off a Norman Rockwell painting, all for a low and memorably even price, and it is bundled up and delivered right to your front door. Even if you decline the deal, and you end up slaving over the stove, fighting for oven space, washing and washing huge pans, trying to remember how to make that family recipe, and when it is all over, the consumers bail out to watch football while leaving the mess to a handful of responsible people, these fliers implant a little idea in your head: for forty bucks, I could have avoided all of this! Maybe next year!

The offering becomes especially attractive given the latest reports on the price of a Thanksgiving dinner for 4. It is up 13% this year, to a whopping $49. You can not only save time by buying the thing pre-done at the store; you can save money now too.

To be sure, some people look at these commercial offerings and balk. This is an attack on tradition! What has this world come to when we even commercialize sacred rituals like the cooking of holiday meals? Is there nothing left that we truly treasure, nothing that is immune from poisoning by the dollar economy, nothing outside the cash nexus?

This is a critique of markets that has been made for a century by both the left and the right. Everyone seems to agree that the market is at war with tradition. The left says that our lives are being gobbled up by giant corporate conglomerates that are sapping our ability to manage our lives. The right says that these commercials deals are ripping up our cultural and civilizational roots, attacking our community ties, and replacing ties the bind with the cold calculation of the balance sheet.

Nonsense. Once you strip away all the rhetoric and melodrama, these attacks on the market really make no sense all. If people want to buy a pre-cooked turkey from the store, the store has given these people an opportunity to do so. Everyone is free to accept or reject the deal. There is no force involved. No one is ripping up roots or gobbling up lives. This is about people and their choices. I fail to see how the world would be any better off if grocery stores were somehow prevented by law from offering people food and services that people want.

But what about the critique that this is really an attack on tradition? I can’t even follow what this could possibly even mean. What the stores are doing is reinforcing a tradition and making it possible to live within its structures in a way that is more readily accessible and affordable. What if all the people who buy this pre-set meal deal would otherwise be opening cans of soup for the holidays? The stores are making it possible for these people to partake in a tradition that would otherwise not live in their home.

In other words, the commercialization of these holiday rituals is not destroying tradition but rather causing them to be more widespread. This goes for all the Christmas accouterments that are filling up the shelves at the stores. In fact, the commercialization of the holidays has been the very means by which all the holiday traditions have been preserved – and, in many cases, commerce created these traditions in the first place.

We only need to look back at the first Thanksgiving to see this. William Bradford, the governor of the Plymouth colony, had imposed a form of managerial socialism, expecting everyone to work for the good of all and throw their proceeds into a common pool. The system didn’t work. People became lazy and thieving and nearly starved.

Bradford saw the error of his ways and let everyone take possession of their own plots of land and enjoy the proceeds for themselves. This led to trade, honesty, hard work, and eventually bounty. This is why the crop yields of 1621 were catastrophic and the yields of 1623 were bountiful. The celebration of Thanksgiving really dates from a market produced bounty. (The entire story is related by Bradford himself.)

In other words, what is most traditional about our holidays is the integral relationship that private property, markets, trade, and commerce have with what we consider our folkways. Markets enable our rituals, and often create them. They certainly make them more fun.

People rail against the free market but without it, our culture and our traditions would suffer. They might cease to exist. We might end up like those poor residents of the Plymouth in 1621. We need wise thinkers like William Bradford who can recognize the error of their ways and embrace commerce now when we need it most of all.


Jeffrey Tucker