Perhaps you wrote a letter to Santa Claus when you were a child. “Dear Santa”, you wrote. You poured your energies into it in the expectation of receiving many blessings. When you finished, you mailed it away to be read by the magical man who can deliver all the world’s toys in a single night. But, alas, you never heard back from him. You are to rest assured that he got your letter – he reads all the letters of all the little girls and boys. Of course, your parents will have read it and taken upon themselves the costs of providing the real toys that you actually received on Christmas day.
Santa, in many ways, is an excellent metaphor of the popular conception of government. It’s how government wants to be perceived. All-capable and hyper-competent, government accomplishes feats that surpass the ability of the individual to even conceive of doing through non-governmental means. Governments build eternal, awe-inspiring pyramids. They launch men to the Moon. They build massive dams. They implement vaccination regimes affecting vast, uncountable populations. A touch of the nose and a wink, and it’s done.
All that we, the public, must do is believe. It is our lack of faith in government that is the sole obstacle to its fulfillment of our greatest wishes and desires. How many times have we heard that there are no limits to what we can accomplish if only we pull together? Just as all the little children believing in Santa is what brings the toys, so our belief in government is what creates the miracles that can only be wrought through the agency of government.
The sad truth that you inevitably learn is that Santa does not exist at all. It is really your parents who bought all those toys, with the money they earned by engaging in peaceful, voluntary exchange with their neighbors, whether it was labor or an entrepreneurial endeavor. They did this out of their love for you. It was never Santa who delivered toys to all the boys and girls in one night. It was each father, each mother, each grandparent and family friend who delivered the toys, toys purchased by scarce means.
And the same is true of government funding. Every welfare stamp, every social program, every program for the sick, elderly and disabled – it is all paid for by other citizens. The willingness of people to peacefully and willingly give up their time for the service of something other than self – philanthropy in its purest form – is the stuff from which any social service is built, however it is administered. So giving is man, that not only those who are superlatively rich but also those who make a middle-class income and even those who are near poverty will accept being taxed for what they believe is the good of their fellow-citizens. Tax rates throughout the developed world are at unprecedented levels in history. Yet not only do people give peacefully in the form of not protesting and resisting taxation so long as they believe it is going to the good of their fellow man, but they also generously fund private charities in addition to the taxes which they really have no option but to pay.
It was only us all along.
You may have been disappointed when you learned that Santa did not exist. The world got a little colder, a little more monochrome, that day. Gone, the warm feeling of all-embrace. In its wake, you were left with the cool realization that everything has a cost. Every toy costs someone something. There are no tireless, magical elves at the North Pole churning out an endless supply of costless goods.
Disillusioned, some of us have gone on to discover that the government also cannot escape the bounds of scarcity, that the illusion of limitless bounty from the hands of government beneficence is just as fictional as Santa. All those pointless protests and political campaigns. What were they all for? What difference did any of it make, in the end? Year after year, Congress after Congress, President after President, the same policies continue unabated. It turns out that not only does Santa not have any free toys, he also has an agenda; and your happiness isn’t on it.
Of course, then there are the popular Christmas songs. He sees you when you’re sleeping. In the modern surveillance state, this has a chillingly literal meaning. And, of course, he knows when you’ve been bad or good. I sure hope so, because he has the power to gag & bag me, to detain me indefinitely, to imprison me without charges, even to execute me should he deem it in the interests of North Pole Security. And then there’s the oh-so-lucky Rudolph who finally gets recognized by the Big Boss, leading to cheers all around from the same jocks and bullies who just the day before were hazing and harassing him. Hooray for status culture!
Giving, they say, is the reason for the season. As I pointed out already, we give despite having much of our control over how our gifts will be used taken away from us by our wise leaders. But there’s something louder and more insistent in the message of holiday giving. But for extraordinary giving, the streets would be filled with the poor and the downtrodden. This is really our old friend, zero-sum economics, in disguise. You have plenty and, deep down, you know that you have it at the expense of someone else. So, it’s your duty to give back some of what you have received. But don’t get confused and mail your paycheck back to your employer. You’re supposed to give it back to other people because, somehow, you really got it from them and you didn’t realize it. Or something.
What has all this holiday cheer given us? I’m all for the family get-togethers. I’m all for a holiday that is about celebrating the altruism in human nature. But is that how Christmas is really working out? Have you watched a TV Christmas commercial, lately? Soulless, corporate advertising that can’t even work up the nerve to use the word “Christmas.” The season from Black Friday to Christmas Eve’s Day has devolved into a competition between consumers to buy the biggest, spend the most; it is the ultimate corporate fantasy. What it has really given us is a lifeless, sequined monoculture of conspicuous consumption and status displays of wealth.
I could write a letter to the President, telling him the things I want. But I can assure you, he will never see it, let alone read it. And I can also tell you that all the benefits that I have from the social order – the division of labor, specialization, voluntary exchange, etc. – will be there regardless of what the government does. No, in spite of what the government does.