What You Should Think About TANSTAAFL

“They take the paper,
And they read the headlines.
So they’ve heard of unemployment,
And they’ve heard of breadlines,
And they philanthropically cure them all
By getting up a costume charity ball.”

–Ogden Nash

Low standards of political discourse are immediately evident whenever “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” is presented as if it were a relevant and substantial utterance. I make this claim without regard for grammar. “There is no such thing as a free lunch” is more correct only on that level. The most common usage is to uphold anarcho-capitalist ideals, typically in a disingenuous manner. It remains a slogan with much more capacity to mislead than to lead.

Of course, on some level it is also true. Even prehistoric hunter-gatherers, living brief spans still often packed with more leisure time than we long-lived modern folks permit ourselves, had to expend effort for their meals. Risk, sweat, and patience are elements of big game hunting as romanticized by the distortions of outdated anthropology. More realistic studies reveal that feeding stone age tribes rarely required such dramatic efforts. After all, why waste muscle and weapons to kill antelope more easily herded over a precipice? Why bother at all with large animals when small game is caught with minimal effort in nets or pits? In a time of low human population density, epic exertions for the purpose of obtaining food would have been a sign of crisis or a quirk of cultural machismo — not the normal state of affairs.

Still, the process was not effortless. It is with this reality in mind that free food is approached with such hostility by modern economic thinkers. At a downright childish level, political discussions may take place where sharing this insight serves some constructive purpose. Little kids may not understand that there ultimately is some effort involved in the delivery of any good or service by the public sector. Beyond that level it is merely a tool to distract.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch,” in its typical context is an appeal for the outright abolition of all government. After all, it is even more insightful to make statements like, “there is no such thing as a free cruise missile,” or “there is no such thing as a free aircraft carrier.” Yet if someone were to address defense policy from that immature perspective, that individual would develop a serious credibility problem.

I believe wholeheartedly that big ticket defense spending is an ongoing economic disaster that should be addressed with sweeping reforms. I also believe it is best to raise these concerns by looking candidly at the real costs and real benefits of pending procurements. To say, “well, the missile defense shield isn’t free, you know,” is a feeble argument. To say, “well, the missile defense shield is well on the way to costing more than $100 billion without offering an actual capability to defend against missiles,” is much more in line with responsible adult political discourse.

Yet often when initiatives to improve national health or relieve American poverty are addressed by conservatives, they fall back on TANSTAAFL argumentation. A peculiar twist on the love of liberty can be found at the intersection of economics and right wing lunacy. It is thought that liberty is severely abridged by such “unfair” policies as a 50% top marginal tax rate or the enforcement of minimum wage laws. Yet notions like universal health care or expanded educational subsidy are also seen ways of obstructing the liberty of the rich rather than facilitating the exercise of liberty by all citizens.

John Stuart Mill gets dragged into these discussions all too often by conservatives lacking an understanding of the man’s actual beliefs and works. It is true that he wrote On Liberty, a thorough and articulate defense of social libertarianism. What so many ideologues in this area fail to recognize is that the man also wrote On Socialism. To Mill, “the right to swing my fist ends at the tip of your nose” would have seemed a crude way to make a good point. Yet “the right to amass my fortune ends at the point others in society must endure squalor” is at least as valid in interpreting his ideas.

TANSTAAFL thinking relies on a willful obliviousness to social context. Great wealth is thought to be achievable and maintainable as some purely personal act. The essential support of various civic institutions and a stable prosperous society is set aside through deliberate oversimplification of the discussion. This phenomenon seems born of the Red Scare, and it only spills beyond American borders to the degree that shallow self-centered ideology infests the minds of media tycoons and distorts debates abroad.

Never mind the hundreds of thousands of unfortunate families in urgent need of enough economic support to provide a decent home life for their children — let’s make the debate all about welfare fraud cases instead. Never mind the millions of immigrants aspiring to nothing more than a chance to trade honest work for American wages — let’s make the debate all about the anomaly of welfare seekers instead. Just as the Moon can eclipse a much more massive object like the Sun, somehow darkness spreads as economic conservatives manage to eclipse the whole of a major social need by focusing on a tiny subset of dishonest beneficiaries.

Yet the distortion does not end there. Many people will couple TANSTAAFL arguments with assertions that private charity could and would solve all manner of social problems if only the chains of burdensome taxation would be lifted. The sound of chirping crickets will greet those who listen to history looking for examples of anything resembling an optimal social minimum sustained without government support.

Apparently no wallpaper is too thin to prevent cutthroat capitalists from seeing the enormous holes in their own reasoning. Then there is the false implication that wealthy Americans are of one mind when it comes to welfare policy. This facilitates denial of the way perpetuating (or even accelerating) the concentration of wealth deprives affluent liberals of the freedom to live in a society with less contagion, less crime, and all around less human misery than exists under the status quo. Does the Constitution require the unanimous consent of the rich to implement social policy, or might the normal process apply here? No pundit uttering the phrase “limousine liberal” as if it somehow carried the implication “class traitor” should be taken seriously.

While it is obnoxious for a politically conservative fringe to claim to speak for all of America’s wealthy, it is even more absurd for them to contend that cutthroat policies somehow constitute a pro-growth strategy. The argument that poverty relief, universal health care, et al. actually promote growth by dramatically expanding the discretionary income of consumers may be controversial, but it is hardly without merit. By contrast, the argument that promoting concentrations of wealth will stimulate growth through some “trickle down” mechanism is a questionable assertion in times of capital crisis and flat out bogus in most macroeconomic scenarios.

It is true that at least a little effort is involved in obtaining anything worthwhile. Sound insight into economic policy is no exception to this. Why then would any adult substitute “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” for some intelligent contribution to a political discussion? I suspect at the heart of it all is a divergence of goals. Responsible citizens use political discourse to seek truth and promote the most informed and thoughtful perspectives on important decisions to be made in our times. Others seem determined to leave any exchange no more informed than they were at the start. Clearly that is not the behavior of a responsible citizen.


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