Christmas in July

by Don Boudreaux on July 3, 2008

in Politics

A reader obviously interested in stroking my already out-sized ego asks me to post an old article of mine on why politicians are like shopping-mall Santas.  Here ’tis.

Shopping-mall Santas remind me of politicians.  No joke.

Consider the similarities: each Santa sits upon a throne and receives
from stangers demands for free goodies. Each child who asks for things
from Santa asks for these somethings free of charge. Others – Santa and
his elves – bear the full cost of supplying little Johnny with his
bicycle and little Suzie with her doll.

Therefore, from the perspective of each child, requests made to Santa
are costless – there’s no reason to hold back. Each child will request
many more toys than he or she would buy if he or she had personally to
pay the cost of making the toys.

Politicians are surprisingly like shopping-mall Santas.

Each elected official is routinely approached by representatives
of this and that special-interest group – sugar farmers, labor unions,
the steel industry, the textile industry, the plastic-bag industry and
on and on and on. Each lobbyist asks elected officials for some special
favor, usually a privilege that must be paid for by third parties.

There’s little reason, therefore, for lobbyists to moderate their
requests. So they ask and ask and keep on asking. It’s actually quite a
child-like arrangement. (Indeed, just as children often bellyache and
whine when Christmas morning reveals that Santa did not fulfill every
wish, interest groups often bellyache and whine when government doesn’t
come through with every requested special privilege.) Of course, the
analogy between shopping-mall Santas and politicians isn’t perfect.

Shopping-mall Santas are less harmful than politicians.

To see why, imagine for a moment what the world would be like if
shopping-mall Santas actually possessed some of the power possessed by
politicians. Each Santa would receive the requests of all the little
children visiting his mall. All of these Santas would then assemble in
a grand building – say, a marble-domed edifice at the North Pole – and
inform each other of the different demands that each Santa received
from the children. Each Santa would seek to satisfy as many of "his"
children’s requests as possible.

Satisfying such requests – assuming no elves exist – requires
the House of Santas to get resources from third-parties. This is where
our assumption that Santas enjoy power similar to that enjoyed by
politicians comes in. With the best of intentions, the jolly old
fellows tax and regulate the faceless masses in order to satisfy the
requests of the cute little Suzys and the adorable little Johnnys.

Of course, the masses are not completely accommodating. If the
Santas tax too heavily, they risk getting fewer, rather than more, tax
revenues. So not each and every and all requests of each child can be
completely satisfied. Bargaining among the different Santas assembled
will determine just which demands are completely satisfied, which are
ignored, and which only are partly satisfied.

But clearly the amount of society’s resources used to make toys
will be excessive. Each child who registered his or her demands with a
shopping-mall Santa was unconstrained in doing so. Likewise, in seeking
to satisfy as far as politically possible each child’s request, each
Santa is spending other people’s money. The world would have far too
many toys and too little of those things that children don’t fancy.

We should be jolly happy that each shopping-mall Santa in fact
immediately forgets each child’s request the moment each child hops
down from his knee. Too bad members of Congress take their role as
Santa much more seriously.

Woe, woe, woe.


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