The perennial promises of free stuff from political candidates are front and center again now that we are ensnared in another US election cycle. The knee-jerk response from some economists and libertarians is “TANSTAAFL!” And of course it’s true that There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch, because somebody must bear the costs of the supposedly “free” stuff. Nothing is free because every action has an opportunity cost.
Especially when the government is involved in doling out the gifts, all it means is that it was bought with money taken from others. Or, sometimes, the money is taken from the person receiving the gift, who thinks he’s gotten something for nothing. (This is a sleight-of-hand political trick that has fooled many for centuries.)
But what if we interpret “free” in a more colloquial sense? Is it still preferable for the government to give away free stuff? Do unhampered markets provide for free stuff?
Two Definitions of “Free”
Today’s promises include free college, free healthcare, free paid time off of work, and all sorts of goodies. Although the above conclusion (no such thing as “free”) applies to all of these, I want to consider a different, more liberal definition of “free”: gifted.
For example, if Bernie gives Jonathan an apple that Bernie either grew in his orchard or bought at the store and Bernie expects nothing in return, the apple is a free gift from Bernie to Jonathan. The production, purchase, and loss of the apple is costly, but Jonathan bears none of these costs. Jonathan would technically have to expend some time and effort to hold and consume the apple, and he would lose an apple’s worth of carrying capacity on his person, but ignoring these and other technicalities, we can casually say that the apple is a free gift from Jonathan’s perspective.
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