What You Should Think About Santa Claus

December 21, 2007

“There are three stages of man: he believes in Santa Claus; he does not believe in Santa Claus; he is Santa Claus.”

–Bob Phillips

This holiday season, with its roots in pagan festivals of goodwill, has long been a time of popular merriment and a celebration of charity. The contrast with normalcy seems to grow sharper as time marches forward. One widespread custom of the season involves giving gifts to children in the context of a particular narrative. According to this story, a jolly old man, generally inclined to keep to himself, ventures forth from his home to roam the world, giving toys and treats to children of all ages. These rewards are bestowed based not on industriousness or inheritance, but simply for being well-behaved.

It is surprising such an overtly anti-capitalist icon should have weathered the rhetorical storms of Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, etc. As if this flagrant disrespect for the importance of profit were not enough, ol’ St. Nick flaunts his politics by wearing more red than Hugo Chavez! It would take great magic to explain how this selfless devotion to redistributing material wealth has not made Santa Claus public enemy number one in the eyes of pundits and politicians preaching (if so rarely adhering to) an agenda of economic conservatism.

In spite of his annual spree of charity, carried out through countless acts of trespass, Santa Claus remains a beloved public figure. Perhaps the man is indeed blessed with vast supernatural powers. Yet if that were the case, one would think he might take action to preserve the dwindling ice cap that has so long been home to him and his elves. It may instead be that there is another explanation for all this. Perhaps it is simply a fact that even truly nasty grown-ups like Dick Cheney or Bill O’Reilly were once children too. As unlikely as it seems, I am inclined to believe that explanation.

They may show precious few signs of humanity in the 21st century, but I believe even the most thorough of investigations would not turn up an extraordinary origin for the great deceivers of our time. Thus it stands to reason that, in some seemingly (though not actually) simpler decade, they also partook of a common American experience — sitting on some department store Santa’s lap, listing their material desires, then arising early Christmas day to see what bounty had appeared under the tree for them.

It could be that memories of such personal bliss explain why so many of the loudest voices in the right wing of American politics do not assail Santa as they do pretty much any other public figure who distributes material reward without regard to inheritance, investment, or employment situations. It is not as if they have a generalized concern for children. Abolishing the Aid for Families with Dependent Children program, giving the “market forces” shrug to the decline of health care availability for children in working class families, demanding single parents always favor seeking a paycheck over dedication to home life — are these the deeds of people who are truly concerned about the welfare of America’s children?

No doubt there is a place in society for personal profit. Some people are obsessed with it, and a few of those are more constructive than destructive in pursuit of its accumulation. Most people have some interest in it and would maintain that interest even if active wealth procurement were not perceived as a requirement for continued survival. Just as Santa can only provide such largess due to the labor of countless elves, paternalistic policies are only effective in the context of a productive society.

Yet in that context a wide range of paternalistic policies are both practical and effective. It may be the case that modern civilization does not provide us with the means to make goodwill and charity the primary focus on human endeavors. Yet it is also the case that modern civilization does provide us with the means to spread goodwill and provide charity at levels that would profoundly improve quality of life throughout society. Many would resist such efforts out of principle . . . but just what sort of principles justify organizing a national economy around cutthroat competition, deliberately rolling back social advances that alleviate human misery?

When he was just establishing a place for himself in American civic life, a famous figure who would eventually be mistaken for a kindly old man exercised eloquence in explanation of such beliefs. In 1964 Ronald Reagan launched his own political career be speaking on behalf of Barry Goldwater’s Presidential bid.  In the speech now known as “A Time for Choosing” The Great Communicator said, “This is the issue of this election: whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”

His grand entrance into the realm of American political theater saw Reagan both displaying and promoting a warped view of history. The idea behind the American revolution was not that government ought to be reduced for reduction’s sake. It was not that government was an enemy of peace or prosperity or happiness. It was that government ought to flow from the will of the people rather than the power of unelected aristocrats. Self-government is not at all about reducing government services, but instead it involves a commitment to government that does not enable public officials and their associates to personally loot the wealth of the nation.

Deep down, most people know that there is a time and a place for Santa Claus. Likewise, few people are so blinded by ideology that they actually believe it would be wise to privatize the sidewalks or abandon poor orphans to the elements. We may do well not to imprison the unreformed Scrooges among us. Yet to constantly endorse their demands for less corporate taxation, less regulation of workplace conditions, less environmental protection, less public support for education, etc. — to do that is to oppose the immense social good obtained by permitting kindness and charity to influence public policy.