In The Netherlands, Saint Nicholas (De Sint), is a more important cultural icon than his rebranded alter ego Santa Claus.

In mid November, a person dressed-up as Saint Nicholas ‘arrives’ in the Netherlands, on a steam boat, having ostensibly sailed from Spain. For many Dutch children it’s a celebration filled with wonder and excitement. De Sint is accompanied by helpers. They are called Zwarte Pieten, in English, Black Petes. The people dressed as Black Pete are usually pale-skinned, they wear boot polish to blacken their faces.

In the Netherlands there are strong conflicts of opinion about the appropriateness of the Black Pete element of the celebration. Opponents of the tradition say that it’s racist. Here’s how one explains it:

A friendly white boss who has only jolly black slaves is no accident, but a consequence of historical events that were horrible and often deadly for people of African descent.

Supporters of the Black Pete tradition say that it does no harm. That it should be maintained as part of Dutch cultural heritage. That their personal attitude towards people with dark skin has not been affected by the tradition. That as children they never even read the blackfaces as representing black people. One of the more naive sounding defenses is that the black is actually chimney soot.

In support of the pro-Pete public, I think it’s important to point out that the Black Pete tradition isn’t racist. If racism is taken to mean a belief that within humanity certain biological groups are inferior to others then Black Pete, the tradition, isn’t racist. No image or performance can be inherently racist in this sense. Images or rituals don’t hold beliefs, only people do. An alternative sense of racist could mean something like ‘antagonistic towards members of a particular race’. But this definition doesn’t fit the reality of the Black Pete ritual as currently practiced either. While many feel as though it’s offensive, even those do not claim (as far as I’ve seen) that participants in the ritual generally aim to cause upset.

Perhaps what the anti-Pete activists mean is that the Black Pete tradition causes racism. I think that would be a very tough case to make, in my opinion implausible on its face. I don’t see anyone even starting to do the work to establish such a claim.

I think it’s more likely that what the activists really mean is that the Black Pete tradition is a painful reminder of the suffering of black people in the past. And that they find it distasteful that this symbol is now part of a celebratory ritual in the Netherlands.

In my opinion, the anti-Pete activists would serve their cause much more effectively if they would limit their propaganda efforts to emphasising how the ritual makes them feel, rather than falsely claiming that Black Pete is racist.

In this account so far I’ve sketched a tradition and two groups with opposing views about the appropriateness of that tradition. As ever though, the stakes of the conflict are raised by the poisonous involvement of the state.

It’s important to notice that at least the main Saint Nicholas celebration is a state-subsidised event. If a private group expresses an opinion one finds distasteful it’s disturbing, but we at least know that we don’t have to associate with that group or person anymore. But when an entity that claims to represent you in some meaningful way compels you, under threat of force, to subsidise speech that you find distasteful in the extreme, hurtful and offensive–I can feel my blood rise just writing that–it’s intolerable.

Last year, a guy wearing a tee-shirt with words ‘Black Pete is Racism’ was part of the crowd at the ceremonial ‘arrival’ of Sint Nicholas in Dordrecht. A peaceful expression of opinion. He was subjected to police brutality and arrested. So as well as violently suppressing peaceful speech that opposes a hated ritual, the state artificially contributes to the longevity of that ritual, by subsidising it from a supply of money, the magnitude of which does not reflect the aggregate value the public places on having the ritual continue.

Prices and trading activity under freed market conditions embody, and are highly reactive to, information about what people value, and how much they value it. As far as matching resource use to people’s values, state subsidies are shots in the dark because of their isolation from market forces. In other words, we don’t know whether the state subsidy of the whole celebration represents a net gain or loss of subjective value to society.

What’s the solution? The logic of statism results in two equally unsatisfactory options:

  1. Use threats of force to fund the Black Pete tradition, and suppress speech that opposes it.
  2. Use threats of force to prevent the practicing of the Black Pete ritual itself.

A third option is much simpler, and saner. Remove state funding of the Black Pete ritual, don’t force anyone to pay for speech they oppose. Those groups who strongly want to see the ritual continue will fund local events on their own. Those who don’t much care either way will likely not see it anymore—and won’t miss it. And one less injustice will be foisted on those who would never voluntarily support the ritual and would be glad to see it die out.