You’ve probably heard of “Rob Your Neighbor.” You might know it as “White Elephant” or another name, but the gist of it is: a family gets together for the holidays and everyone brings a wrapped gift — usually with a limit of, say, $30. 

All the gifts are put on a common table, or under the Christmas tree, and each family member draws a number. Number 1 gets to choose first. She chooses the biggest, or shiniest, or most interesting-looking gift, and opens it in front of everyone. Number 2 then has two options: he can either “steal” that gift, or select a new one from the pile and open it. So on and so forth, until everyone has a gift. (Typically, a gift can only be stolen twice.)

My family started playing this game on Christmas night about five years ago; some of my cousins wanted to develop a new tradition. I was skeptical from the beginning, but without quite consciously understanding why. I even refused to play for the first year or two. After that, my mom got on my case about it, and I gave in … with my own twist (I’ll explain.)

However, I think I can articulate my initial aversion now that I’m better versed in the ideas of Austrian economics, governments, public choice theory, and liberty in general.

See, Rob Your Neighbor is a nonsensical, consumerist, inefficient game. It encourages each person to buy not a carefully-chosen gift for a specific person, but a generic, bland gift which people most likely will feel, perhaps vaguely lukewarm about?

Think about it: when you buy something for yourself, you usually know what you want. If it’s a bigger purchase, you probably do some research. Generally, you choose something at the perfect crossroads: the highest-quality item that fits your budget.

When you buy a gift for someone else, but a specific someone else — let’s say your mom or brother — you probably don’t know their needs as well as you know your own. But you probably have a solid idea of what they’ll like.

When you buy a gift for Rob Your Neighbor, you buy a gift for nobody, really. You buy a gift, as it were, for the lowest common denominator. You can’t take anyone’s tastes into account because you have no idea who will end up with the gift. So you get something generic. (This is my adaptation of Milton Friedman’s 4 Ways of Spending Money, which is worth a read if you’re not familiar.)

I remember last year, some gift options were: an Amazon gift card; scented candles and bath soaps; and a package of golf balls. I ended up with the golf balls, and I was actually pretty happy with that haul — although of course, if I had really needed golf balls, I would’ve bought them myself. 

I always had a gut feeling that this game was dumb, but I know you’re wondering what this all has to do with economics, government, and liberty. Here’s the point: the Rob Your Neighbor model mirrors the public model of taxation. 

In local, state, and federal structures, politicians tax most or all of their people. Then they provide generic, bland “gifts” back to the public, for the “common good.” These gifts generally won’t upset anyone; they’re things everyone can agree are useful, to some degree or another. But they’re not optimized for any one person.

These “gifts” might be public parks or libraries. They could be investments in roads, or subsidies for football stadiums. And please, don’t get me wrong: I really, really like parks and libraries. I like driving, and I love football. I use those things frequently. Just as I liked those golf balls and used them frequently. But I’m not sure I would choose to invest in a park or library if I had the choice, and I certainly wouldn’t give my own money to a billionaire owner of a football team without at least getting a ticket in return.

That difference in the efficiency of my dollar — I get something I like well enough, instead of buying something I would LOVE or need — might not seem like a big deal. After all, I still end up with a nice park to exercise in. But tell that to someone who’s truly struggling to make ends meet — someone who has to feed a family on a part-time job. Tell them the small loss in efficiency isn’t a big deal. Tell them the public park is more worthy of their dollar than a trip to the grocery store. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Anyway, I’ve come around on Rob Your Neighbor. It’s a fun way to pass an hour on Christmas night. It gets people who otherwise might not interact much to steal (playfully) from each other — even to negotiate “peace treaties” among themselves. And I’ve found my own little way to overcome the inefficiency: I just buy a gift for myself — something I would’ve bought regardless!

One year, that was a pack of new socks I needed. One year, it was a jar of peanut butter and salmon jerky, two of my favorite foods. Last year, it was $30 worth of Bitcoin. That way, if there’s nothing in the common pile I like better (and usually there isn’t, although I can’t rule out the possibility) I can always “steal” my gift back from the unfortunate family member who selected it (and who is usually eager to get rid of it.)

So, yeah: I’ve come around on the game. But again, that’s when the stakes are $30-gifts, and when everyone participates voluntarily. When the stakes are cranked up to the societal level, and people’s life savings, families, and dreams are on the line, nah — we need to allow each individual to decide how best to use their own money.

To learn more about why public policies — leveraged through government power — are inefficient, be sure to check out our video below.

This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.