There’s no such thing as a “free” lunch. We’ve heard that line many times from our parents, and we recite the expression to our children and grandchildren. Milton Friedman also canonized the phrase in the title of his popular textbook. If that’s the rule at home, shouldn’t it also apply to our government?
It’s time to walk the talk America, and it all starts by making “free” a four letter word at home.
“Free” is a four-letter word, but that’s not why we shouldn’t say it. Ban it from your vocabulary because it is a ubiquitous fallacy. It simply does not exist. There is more evidence for Santa Claus than getting something for nothing.
“Free” is a soundbite and a gimmick to get attention that has spread like a virus into government policy. We’ve come to think of “free” as the universal cure.
When we refrain from using the word “free,” we encourage discussion of how things are actually paid for, since everything must have a cost at its most basic level. The “free” trolley rides to customers with limited parking? The “free” social media account? The “free” samples of fresh pineapple at the grocery store? The “free” admission to a public park? The “free” recipe blog to spice up your dinner menu? The promise of “free” college tuition and healthcare? These uses of “free” are not only misleading, but perpetually false.
Instead of a sign that reads “free trolley rides,” a truthful message would be: “local business-sponsored trolley rides.” Similarly, instead of “free college education,” the message should be: “taxpayer-funded college education.”
You should always view “free” with a skeptical eye and look for the rest of the story.
Once we understand that something-for-nothing just doesn’t exist, opportunity costs should be added to the equation. Spending money or time on one item or activity means forgoing the purchase of another item or forgoing participation in another activity. If your family is paying to be on a travel sports team, can you schedule a summer vacation? If a business owner is sponsoring trolley rides, can they hire additional staff? If our government is using tax money for higher education, can we pay off the national debt?
Banning the word “free” can be fun! Call a timeout or throw the flag referee style whenever the word creeps into conversation. Mute the television and talk about the real costs when you hear “free” in an ad. Taking a minute to discuss how things are paid for develops children’s knowledge of how the world works. This understanding will last longer and have a greater impact than “because I said so.”
We have to model behavior if we want to encourage it. Some families pay thousands a year for travel sports, a single sport played all year, to develop muscle memory. We can put the same (or more) emphasis and value on economic decision-making by talking about economics on a daily basis with our children and grandchildren.
Understanding needs, wants, supply, demand, incentives, tradeoffs and opportunity costs empowers decision making. Use these terms daily in family discussion as a preventative to entitlement, and to promote a sense of purpose.
Just as charity begins at home, so does economics. Encourage generosity and giving of your time, talents and donations but fully understand and agree to the cost. If it works that way in your home, shouldn’t it work that way in your government?
As the next generation is due to inherit a national debt nearing $20 trillion, encouraging questions and seeking answers is the most powerful skillset we can bequeath to our children. A curious mind is the foundation of lifelong learning and independence. Let’s encourage an assault on “free,” not on freedom.
Celebrate Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny too, but stop the madness of perpetuating the myth of “free.” The separation of fact from fantasy stings a little in the short term, but more brightly illuminates our path to the shining city on the hill.
For the love of children and our country, let’s make “free” a four-letter word.
–Michelle Balconi and Dr. Arthur B. Laffer
Michelle A. Balconi is a writer and speaker focused on connecting children and adults through economics, democracy and immigration. Arthur B. Laffer is founder and chairman of Laffer Associates and was an adviser to President Reagan. Mrs. Balconi and Dr. Laffer collaborated to write Let’s Chat About Economics, an illustrated book for young families, introducing real terms in everyday scenarios. Mrs. Balconi and Dr. Laffer will release two additional titles later this year, Let’s Chat About Democracy and Let’s Chat About Immigration. More information can be found at www.letschataboutecon.com