09 July 2010

There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

The title phrase of this blog entry is often abbreviatred TANSTAAFL in libertarian circles. Those aren't initials, buddy. That's an acronym, pronounced "tan-staff-ill."

Anyway, it is a profound truth. I was once arguing about health care policy with a Canadian who was trying to instruct the ignorant Yankee on this subject. She said that of course health care in Canada isn't a free lunch. It does get paid for obviously -- doctors don't work for free -- hospitals don't construct themselves. So since there is no such thing as a "free lunch" anyway, there is nothing to be concerned about. Right?

I told her that she had entirely misunderstood the significance of TANSTAAFL. The point isn't "the free lunch is like Big Foot. Big Foot doesn't exist, so he won't come and hurt you." The significance of TANSTAFFL is a warning, not a bit of re-assurance.

The warning is precisely that some people sometimes deceive themselves into believing that they see a free lunch, or that they see Big Foot for that matter. The coddling of such deceptions can do real harm. The danger is not Big Foot but the delusion.

Anyway, this column in the Chicago Sun Times Monday made much the same point using that Independence weekend favorite beverage -- lemonade. When that old symbol of childish enthusiasm and entrepreneurship, the lemonade stand, is turned into a lesson that good (material) things are "free," things are in a sorry state indeed.


Henry said...

Terry Savage's "lemonade" column, to which you link in the last paragraph, was called, "The most assholish opinion column of all time," by Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos. Unfortunately, he doesn't say why. I can see two minor flaws in the column, neither of which warrants Kos' epithet. First, the lemonade stand was probably not a good example to use to make the point that TANSTAAFL. This is because Savage's claim that the girls were giving away their parents' things and not their own is probably false. In light of the fact that there was a nanny present, it seems likely that the parents had given the lemonade and the cups to the girls, or at least had authorized the girls to act as their agents in distributing free lemonade.

Second, as examples of items that voters demand for free, Savage lists mortgage subsidies, bailouts, loan modifications, and unemployment benefits, but he omits the biggest one of all: military expenditures. This is important because it is liberals who generally get a bad rap for wanting social programs for free, but this is false, as liberals tend to recognize the need for taxes; conservatives, by contrast, favor increased military spending while demanding tax cuts. Savage, at least, by including bailouts in his list, does not seem to be attacking liberals in particular, because non-libertarian conservatives favored bailouts to help big business.

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Christopher said...


If you wish to stay anonymous, I don't see how it is possible!

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.