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Free Riding on Santa’s Sleigh


This article is written by Shikhar Garg (Batch of 2018).

A string of events has led to the situation where I have a Secret Santa who is sending me rather pleasant and thoughtful gifts, without having a giftee allotted to me, essentially allowing me to free-ride the exercise. One may wonder why I’m complaining about this, and that would be a reasonable question to ask. The problem is that this makes me think of the person who is unhappily wondering why he/she has not received any gifts yet. Hence, the moral dilemma.

There remains a large amount of ambiguity when it comes to determining if one is supposed to find out the identity of one’s Secret Santa. Somewhat extensive research involving asking bleary-eyed and possibly inebriated Cauvery residents at 4 in the morning and a perusal of the rules of the exercise has failed to settle the question of whether one is supposed to find out who one’s Santa is. If one is supposed to uncover the identity, it makes it a bond-building-with-strangers exercise. If one is not supposed to know the identity, Secret Santa would become a personalized gift-giving system without the hassle of uncovering identities and generating any social obligations between the Santa and the giftee. Ultimately, the unanswered question is this: whether Secret Santa is supposed to provide one with thoughtful gifts from a stranger with the intention that such personalized gift-giving lead to a friendship or is it merely to provide the giftee with thoughtful gifts that may be desirable without the hassle of obligations?

Let’s examine the first case, where one is supposed to discover the identity of one’s Secret Santa. This would make Secret Santa a community building exercise, which is a very laudable objective. However, one must also keep in mind the potentially undesirable consequences of this noble objective. If one were to discover that their Secret Santa or giftee is somebody who they generally dislike, one may resent the obligations that the Secret Santa system has created, for one may not wish to establish any sort of relationship (along the lines of an acquaintance) with their Santa or giftee. So instead of creating a sort of camaraderie between people, it has created the possibility of placing people in very awkward situations. Imagine drawing the name of your ex-girlfriend, that one person on campus whose nose you broke or that one night stand you never spoke to again.

In the second case, which in my opinion is the idea behind Secret Santa, the point of Secret Santa, when the identity of the Santa is not to be revealed, is to provide participants with personalized gifts, from what can be called as “the universe,” or a secret benefactor, with the sole objective being to provide those who have signed up for the exercise with a pleasant experience and thoughtful gifts without the obligations that would accompany identity-revealing. This would not be unlike the belief of children in the magnanimous (yet morally judgemental) Santa Claus. This would make Secret Santa a co-operative scheme, relying on the cooperation of participants to establish a sustainable good trip-generating system, by gifting their giftees things that they would like. Now the problem with this system is the inevitable creation of free riders that accompanies every scheme that is based on co-operation. These free riders can be created due to multiple reasons, with a couple off the top of my head being one such as signing up for the exercise and then backing out, but the same not being reflected in the picking up of chits with names due to say, a problem in communication. This would lead to a situation in which someone is receiving gifts without having a giftee to give gifts to. This creates some sort of moral obligation to find the person who still hasn’t received any gifts due to his/her name not being picked up by the free rider. The other reasons being the simple ignoring of one’s duty as a Secret Santa due to reasons of laziness or impecuniousness. The writer strongly condemns those who fall in the second category. In either case, a free rider has been created (refer: R. Arneson, The Principle of Fairness and Free-Rider Problems), which endangers the sustainability of such a cooperative scheme. This leads to the question of possible sanctions that can be imposed on the free rider, which can fuel a debate for quite a while as to the nature and severity of intended punishment.

It is fairly clear from the above analysis that there is no way to settle the debate. The first option will lead to unwelcome potentially awkward situations, but can be used to eliminate free riders, while the second will eliminate this awkwardness, but will potentially lead to existence (and thriving) of free riders.

So the next time you sign up to participate in Secret Santa, enquire first as to the nature of the scheme. It is quite possible that you may end up with a person who you may not wish to be obligated to send gifts to, or a Santa who may not send a single gift your way. Or you could end up like me, receiving gifts, without being anyone’s Santa yourself. To whoever had a lousy Christmas and a crappy new year, the unintentional free rider apologizes.

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