It’s Time to Rethink the Meaning of “Free”

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My OpEd ran in today’s Moscow-Pullman Daily News.


I first read Robert Heinlein’s 1966 science-fiction novel “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” in junior high, giving me my initial introduction to the idea that nothing is “free.” Heinlein popularized the acronym TANSTAAFL: “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.” The phrase appears to have originated in British pubs in the 1800’s which were not charging for food in order to entice customers in to buy alcohol.

Economist Milton Friedman furthered awareness and corrected the grammar of the term in his 1975 book “There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch.” My graduate school economics professor later hammered this idea home, calling TANSTAAFL the first of ten core tenants of economics.

Ever since reading Heinlein, I have developed a serious dislike of the word free when it comes to economic goods. In terms of economic goods, something may be ‘free of charge’, but the resource is certainly not free to create, deliver, and maintain. Many economists prefer to say, “free at the point of transaction,” meaning no charge. But the use of the word free masks the reality that everything costs. Furthermore, when we say that something is free, we deaden ourselves to the actual costs.

When referring to government, the word “public” has become synonymous with free: public roads, public schools, public parks, public beaches, public property, public library, public defender, public broadcasting, etc. While these might not charge for their services, they are anything but free.

Case in point, the Moscow School District’s 2019 budget is $29,400,000 to educate roughly 2,360 students, or about $12,500 per child per year. As Latah County home owners know, 51% of our local property taxes go directly to government schools and 11% to government roads. There may be no charge to use the schools or roads, but they are certainly not free.

Automatic tax deductions from our paychecks further blind us to this economic reality. If every taxpayer had to go to the Moscow School District each month and lay down $100 in cash, there would be more interest in government school costs. The impersonal nature of taxes causes us to become apathetic with our economic power.

Many have become entitled, believing that free means owed to them. The Democratic Socialists’ agenda affirms this by saying that health care, college, day care, and even housing should be free, and that the US student loan debt (over $1.6 trillion) should be paid off by the government since it should have been free to begin with. This is to treat the government as if it were some kind of entity with both power and personality to determine worth.

Notice how much free stuff the 2020 democratic presidential hopefuls are promising: they guarantee jobs, universal basic income, and $15 per hour minimum wage. They also guarantee that everyone will prosper.

But why stop there? Why not raise minimum wage to $500 per hour so that everyone in the US can be millionaires? We should immediately recognize the absurdity of that proposal: prices go up and employers economize by laying people off, cutting hours, working their current employees harder (they just got a raise, after all), replacing human workers with machines, or going out of business. Yet many do not see that the exact same things happen when minimum wage is raised to $15 per hour.

By giving away free stuff, both Republicans and Democrats are to blame for the federal debt (currently at $22.5 trillion). There is an old expression: “a democracy can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury.” We will bankrupt ourselves unless we stop pretending that things are free.

Whenever you hear the word free, think of Inigo Montoya’s famous line from the movie The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.” TANSTAAFL!

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