Sunday, July 5, 2009

Free Lunch Day

Other economists may tell you that free lunch is an impossibility. Today, though, millions of people all across the United States are eating a free lunch pulled together from the food left over after yesterday’s picnics and parties. Despite the various theories that might explain this away, there often really is no net incremental cost in eating this food the next day, hence, a free lunch. Enjoy the free lunch, if you get one, and consider how often the “impossible” is possible.

Later today I will be attending a free concert. The “free” concert is not really free, as the performers and audience bear the cost, at least, of traveling to the site, and a crew of paid workers and volunteers labored for a day to prepare the site for the event. But it is almost free, that is, compared to some of the familiar alternatives, it costs remarkably little.

This example points to a kind of fatalism contained in the principle of “no free lunch.” It seems to imply that we are locked into a system in which the most important things we consume have predetermined, immutable costs of production, yet when we look around, it is not so. Most of the costs depend on the details of our circumstances and desires. The world we experience is not strictly limited by how much we can pay; it is all more flexible than we would like to admit.