Why bother buying them, putting them up, electrifying them and then taking them down again?
After all, the economist wonders, what's in it for you?
The very same non-economic contribution is going on online, every single day. More and more of the content we consume was made by our peers, for free. My take:
People like the way it feels to live in a community filled with decorated houses. They enjoy the drive or the walk through town, seeing the lights, and they want to be part of it, want to contribute and want to be noticed too.
Peace of mind and self-satisfaction are incredibly valuable to us, and we happily pay for them, sometimes contributing to a community in order to get them.
The internet is giving more and more people a highly-leveraged, inexpensive way to share and contribute. It doesn't cost money, it just takes guts, time and kindness.
No wonder most people don't insist on getting paid for their tweets, posts and comments.
Two asides: First, it's interesting to note that no one (zero) gets paid to put up Christmas lights, but some towns are awash in them.
and second, I think there's a parallel to the broken windows theory here. Broken Windows asserts that in cities with small acts of vandalism and unrepaired facades, crime goes up. The Christmas Light corollary might be that in towns (or online communities) where there's a higher rate of profit-free community contribution, happiness and productivity go up as well.