Sunday, December 19, 2004

The Government Before Christmas

Every Christmas since God knows when, I’ve watched The Nightmare Before Christmas, one of Tim Burton’s better films. It’s about where holidays come from and what happened when someone from “Halloweentown” discovered “Christmastown.” This explorer—Jack Skelington—is tired of being the “Pumpkin King” (which I assume is the star of the annual Halloween festivities) and anxiously tries to understand Christmas so his comrades can celebrate it. I was humming songs in anticipation of my movie-watching ritual when I discovered this seemingly kind gesture by Jack is really a libertarian lesson in action.

Jack doesn’t just want to celebrate Christmas with his Halloween friends. The folks of these holiday towns bring their holiday to the real world. Now Jack wants a crack at it and doles out Christmas jobs to Halloween workers. In doing so, Halloweentown emulates the state—and Jack an important politician—as it shoves its nose in places it doesn’t belong. Not surprisingly, Halloweentown gets Christmas horribly wrong.

Some of the strongest evidence comes from the fact that they kidnapped Santa Claus, using coercion to get their way. Jack snagged Cringle’s hat and—with Santa out of the way—impersonated him so Halloweentown could take care of Christmas. This is exactly what government does when it takes over an industry.

Government never does a good job at the industry and neither did the Halloween folks. Instead of giving people what they wanted (like Santa or the private sector does), Jack and the crew gave them horror-themed gifts (exactly what they thought the people would like). Jack-in-the-boxes had monstrous surprises, a Christmas (Halloween?) tree tried to eat an old lady and there were shrunken heads all around. The National Guard was called in, people barricaded their homes (including their chimney) and there was general chaos and sorrow. It was a disaster.

Why did the Halloween people do such a bad job even though they meant well? Because they had exactly the same problems government has: they lacked the knowledge. In the song where Jack tries to explain Christmas, he points out this knowledge is tacit: “It’s a world unlike anything I’ve ever seen / And as hard as I try / I can’t seem to describe / Like a most improbable dream” and local: “Well, at least they’re excited / Though they don’t understand / That special kind of feeling in Christmas land.”

But even Jack doesn’t get it right. There’s a whole song he sings as he tries to figure Christmas out and in the end he simply concludes: “Just because I cannot see it / Doesn’t mean I can’t believe it!” He merely believes “in Christmas” and he assumes that belief is all that’s needed. He doesn’t consider there are things involved he can’t understand: knowledge that’s wrapped up in the holiday. Because he simply “believes,” he combines Halloween values with Christmas customs (just as state legislators combine their values with industry customs).

With his mere belief comes the slippery slope of tyranny. In the song that he “figures out” Christmas, Jack moves from communism (“And why should they have all the fun? / It should belong to anyone”) to fascism (“Not anyone, in fact, but me / Why I can make a Christmas tree / And there’s no reason I can find / I couldn’t handle Christmas time”) to outright megalomania (I bet I can improve it too / And that’s exactly what I’ll do. [Evil laughter] ”). Remind you of anything?

I’m all in favor of experimentation and trying new ideas and combinations but not when it’s forced on people, as Jack forced his version of Christmas on the world. Like the typical politician who wants to expand his realm of control (though Jack did it because he was bored: not a common reason government meddles with industry), Jack made fundamental mistakes because he lacked the tacit and local knowledge needed to pull off the endeavor. He had to resort to stealing, kidnapping and other coercive acts. Thus, he had no incentive to correct this knowledge problem. This bit of a song Jack sings at the end of the movies sums up many politicians’ reaction when they unwittingly discover their new pet policy only made a mess of things:

“But I never intended all this madness, never / And nobody really understood—well, how could they? / That all I ever wanted was to bring them something great / Why does nothing ever turns out like it should?”

1 comment:

Erin said...

Ruining the holidays for people on a whole new level. *Claps* Congrats. :p
On a sidenote, your comment: "I’m all in favor of experimentation and trying new ideas and combinations but not when it’s forced on people[.]" reminds me of an incident I wanted your imput on.
I was at dinner the other evening with a bunch of friends, and one of them said, he wishes the Russians had 'won' the cold war. To which, after much discussion, another member at the table said, she couldn't believe he had said such a thing, because (and here's the rub) the belief is fine but, beliefs are meant to be kept inside, and away from people. The debate that followed in response to the initial comment was all well and good. But belief's should not be posited and flopped out on the table so to speak, and that's where everything went wrong.
I piped up, (a rarity in all things!) and probably shot myself in the foot, because I maintained, that beliefs are things to talk about, and that there is no problem with that. I echoed the comment, what good is a belief if it simply sits in your head and you do nothing about it, and then I added the caveat, as long as you are not forcing your them off onto other people. Such things are meant to be talked about; such things are meant to be challenged.
I also maintain (though I did not verbalize this) that while I may have been a hypocrite in trying to fob my view off (I maintain that I was not, but only trying to seek understanding and give an alternate view), the initial critique was more hypocritical because it indulged in the very behavior it sought to admonish, as well as trying to persuade others to that side.
But, then again, I could be far far too sick to and overall dense to think this through clearly or with any sort of rationality.