Santa: Naughty Or Nice?

Imagine you managed an organization that could:

  • Deliver several pounds of goods undetected and unstoppable, into several hundred million homes worldwide all on the same night, and to select which among thousands of possible goods go to which homes.
  • Manufacture many tens of dollars worth of state of the art goods, distributed among thousands of types of goods, for each of those homes.
  • Revamp your manufacturing line yearly, to keep up with changing conditions.
  • Track the behavior of billions of people in detail, and know their parents standards for “naughty” or “nice”, enough to classify as naughty or nice.
  • Estimate what goods people want, as accurately as could their parents.
  • Do all this year after year, always on the same day, whether others liked it or not.
  • Do all this completely “off the grid,” at an undisclosed location in complete secrecy, with unidentified members who never talk to anyone about their activities, who use no noticeable inputs from elsewhere, and who have no noticeable waste emissions.

Now consider what you could accomplish with such capabilities.  Toward the naughty side, you could achieve a military takeover of most of the world, and maintain totalitarian control thereafter.  Cooperative homes get good stuff; uncooperative homes get bombs; pretty soon they’d fall in line.

On the nice side, you could deliver food, medicine, tools, and self-defense weapons to a bottom billion of the world’s poor, sick, or oppressed.  You could also identify and punish the world’s corrupt and criminal, and reward the innovative and generous.  You could take a huge bite out of poverty, crime, corruption, and oppression.

Clearly Santa is one very powerful dude; the whole world pretty much hangs on his choice.  So what does Santa actually do? He gives toys to billions of children, mostly ignoring adults. He gives far more to rich kids than to poor kids, and he greatly favors cultures that celebrate his name over others. He mostly ignores his ability to sort people into naughty and nice; they are pretty much all labeled nice.  (Have you ever even heard of a kid who got coal? Wouldn’t that make the news?)

So where does this put Santa on the naughty vs. nice spectrum?  I’d say “mildly positive eccentric.”  Yes he is clearly far less naughty than he could be, but he is also far less nice than possible. He uses his abilities to help others, and his attention is admirably global. But he helps far less than he could, he chooses his own rather odd way to help, and he prefers to help high status folks who celebrate his eccentric contribution. Apparently even in our dreams this is about as much as we dare hope for from a human, no matter how powerful. Deep down we know human charity is not about help, even if it does sometimes help.

Added 7:30p:  Why, over the last century, do parents lie more about Santa to make kids happy, with kids more dissappointed to learn the truth, and yet finding out more often from those same parents?  Source:

A study from 1896 involving 1,500 children aged 7 to 13, which was repeated in 1979. …  More than 22 percent in the 1896 study admitted to being disappointed compared with 39 percent in the 1979 study. But only 2 percent and 6 percent, respectively, felt betrayed. … Close to 25 percent of children in the 1896 study learned the truth about Santa from their parents, compared with 40 per cent in 1979. … In 1896, 54 percent of parents said they perpetuated the myth of Santa since it made their children happy; compared with 73 percent in 1979 and 80 percent in 2000.

Added 23Dec: Adam Ozimek riffs wittily.

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  • Aron

    Santa doesn’t deliver imaginary presents.

  • Miguel

    Great post, Robin. I’d always wondered why Santa is regarded as a good guy while his “help” is mostly useless (and he certainly has the resources to do a lot of useful stuff) 🙂

    That’s why I think that if there was a Santa, he would be something alone the lines of Neil Gaiman’s “Nicholas Was” (from Smoke and Mirrors), someone punished by uncaring gods:

    Nicholas Was…

    older than sin, and his beard could grow no whiter. He wanted to die.

    The dwarfish natives of the Arctic caverns did not speak his language, but conversed in their own, twittering tongue, conducted incomprehensible rituals, when they were not actually working in the factories.

    Once every year they forced him, sobbing and protesting, into Endless Night. During the journey he would stand near every child in the world, leave one of the dwarves’ invisible gifts by its bedside. The children slept, frozen into time.

    He envied Prometheus and Loki, Sisyphus and Judas. His punishment was harsher.

    Ho. Ho. Ho.

  • http://www.athousandnations.com Mike Gibson

    Santarchy, plain and simple!

    Your argument is persuasive, and tho I know you don’t want to hear it, I have to say it. I do not think it would be morally permissible to coerce Santa to do more good than he already does. even tho it would clearly be more efficient.

    Try to persuade him, but in the case of conscripting Santa, the moral principle of efficiency falls lexicographically behind the non-coercion axiom.

    A final thought: I always thought Superman wasted his powers. The guy spends way too much time stopping bank robberies. Aren’t there more important crimes to stop?

    • 2999

      This complaint is a common criticism of Superman, but of the comic books and movies I’ve seen, he doesn’t spend a lot of time on bank robberies and such. The comic books I’ve read focus on him combatting supervillains, alien invaders, and other more high-end stuff. Admittedly the older comics seem to imply he does that.

      Now, spider-man does seem to spend a lot of time fighting common criminals, but that’s about all his powers are good for.

      Batman, however is a genius, and he should be spending his time and money developing new technologies and building his business empire.

      • Brandon Reinhart

        There is a variation of Superman in the Marvel universe named The Sentry. The Sentry is so plagued by the moral quandries surrounding efficient use of his powers that he builds an AI named CLOC to manage his time for him. With CLOC directing his operations he no longer has to worry about the implications of stopping horrible event A at the expense of the victims of simultaneous horrible event B.

        http://dailypop.wordpress.com/2009/05/13/the-sentry-the-forgotten-hero-of-the-silver-age/

        “Neurotic to the point of total collapse, he uses a complex computerized response system called CLOC to determine where he goes and what he does. It makes sense that a character with so much power would feel responsible for letting a child fall to her death while saving a crashing airplane, so he leaves those decisions to CLOC. This was cleverly used by Iron Man to gain the upper hand when the two battled and the iron avenger used his ability to ‘talk’ to machinery and remove the fail safes filters from CLOC, flooding Sentry’s head with every major and minor disaster all at once.”

      • Jackson

        You’ll see here
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pi-UCUL441Q
        at around 04:18 how Superman helped to defeat the KKK. Just imagine if he had an iPhone and went around the world collecting data for Goodguide http://www.goodguide.com/about/mobile

  • Mike Howard

    Santa is all about status!

    This could be a way to show biases for seeing certain behavior everywhere, and how much we’re willing to face up to having them… see how much you notice that behavior in Santa, and how convincingly you could argue that this is clearly the case.

  • Matt

    I have a few thoughts:

    -Santa is a product of evil corporate America that they use as an advertising machine to promote product lines on an idividualized basis.

    -Santa might not be this nice if we stopped feeding him all those cookies and glasses of milk.

    -Santa neither uses him infinite production capacities to provide food for the entire world, nor to bomb the entire world in a terror campaign. This leaves me to believe what I have always suspected of him- he is a crazy old pedophile making excuses to stare at children in their PJ’s (or see you when your sleeping as the song goes).

    -Santa is, and always has been, a Nazi and his only intentions are to make Jewish kids feel bad. O, tannenbaum, you bastard!

  • http://lesswrong.com/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I got my girlfriend a lump of coal for our first Christmas.

    • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

      Before I say Win – how did she react?

      • matt

        Before you say Win – which carbon allotrope?

      • http://lesswrong.com/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

        As planned.

  • mike

    I think the real problem here is that Santa is clearly Too Big To Fail and must be more carefully regulated.

    • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

      He’s already sufficiently regulated by chimney size.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    Santa is a story told to children. Within that narrative, he doesn’t deliver more presents to rich children than to poor, and he does deliver coal to naughty children somewhere. And to that audience, delivering toys is one of the nicest things imaginable.

  • Simetrical

    Phil has it. Adults don’t believe in Santa; Santa is meant to be an idealized figure to entertain children and get them to behave. To a young child living in the developed world, cool toys are about the best reward they could expect for good deeds. On the other hand, since corporal punishment is frowned upon for kids above a few years old, failing to get cool toys when you could have is pretty high up on the scale of possible punishments.

    So I think your observations are off base here. Santa is not conceived by adults as a model of charity, just as a story to tell kids about. Kids are not going to be impressed by stories of how Santa gives food to starving children in Africa.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    As for dealing with naughty children, I’m pleased to note that Santa’s pall Krampus seems to be making something of a comeback this year.

    Krampus is a mythical creature. In various regions of the world – especially Austria– it is believed that Krampus accompanies St. Nicholas during the Christmas season, warning and punishing bad children, …In some rural areas the tradition also includes birching – corporal punishment with a birch rod … especially of young girls. Images of Krampus usually show him with a basket on his back used to carry away bad children and dump them into the pits of Hell.

    • http://axiomofomega.blogspot.com Warrigal

      Humans love trying to convince each other that a selfish person should act altruistically!

  • http://FeministX.blogspot.com FeministX.blogspot.com

    Naughty or Nice? Depends on whether or not he slips a sable under the tree for me and hurries down the chimney tonight.

    I do hope he’s naughty. That’s my kind of nice.

  • kebko

    As atheist parents, Santa Claus is something that is completely unbelievable which every child is expected to believe. They get to experience several things which will help them in life, and which we normally don’t encourage:

    1) They see us encouraging a belief that they find out is totally false.

    2) They share a bizarre belief with practically everyone, and get much positive feedback for it.

    3) After learning the truth, they may find that feigning belief continues to benefit them.

    While we are raising them to Overcome Bias ™, Santa Claus is a fun chance for them to practice living in the big, biased world.

    • tgrass

      kebko,

      As an atheist parent who has been unable to convince my five year old son there isn’t a god (he’s gone Pascal’s wager on me), I thank you for providing the bright side to santa.

  • q

    what if santa had made a kind of faustian bargain — he had absolute control over a worldwide delivery network — but could only deliver toys or other crap designed and built by the likes of mattel.

  • Millian

    Now I’ve seen it all: Hanson equates child with adult aspirations, child with adult charity.

  • Lake

    @ FeministX: Eh? Why would you want a weasel under your tree?

  • Mike

    One of my cousins once received coal.

    Thing is, by most people’s standards he was probably “nice.”

  • ERIC

    Great, simple description of what could enable the *ultimate* totalitarian regime! How bad would it be? I guess it depends on what the rules are. Be “nice” and get everything you want. Sounds like “heaven” to me!

    Funny to ponder the nanotechnology implications as well WRT Santa.

    It is also interesting to note that Santa could be much, much, more. Instead the bar was set quite low for him. Good post!

  • Dave Hedengren

    I for one think Santa is real. It’s just that there are only two or three nice children in the world. The parents of all other children just buy presents for their kids and lie saying Santa put them on the nice list.

    I’ve never met a truly nice kid but I assume with billions of kids there must be 2 or 3 nice ones.

  • mjgeddes

    Christmas message from SAI.

    SAI_2100: ‘You’d better watch out, you’d better think twice, I’m going to find out whose been naughty and nice…’

  • http://sata'snaughtyornicelist morgan

    hi santa this is what i wan;t for cristmas i wan’t my famaliy to have the best crist mas ever and the world to and this is something elis i what i wan’t for cristmas a gitar and a dsi please

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  • http://google jayden sheedy

    dear santa am i on your nice list from jayden sheedy1

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