Free healthcare. Free rent.  College loan forgiveness. Free college.  Guaranteed income.  Extended unemployment benefits.   Newsflash:  As hard as you wish it to be true, all these free promises actually cost money.

We all love getting free stuff—of course! Why pay for something when you can get it for free? “Free” appeals to our most raw greedy and gluttonous emotions. If you don’t believe me, just think back to the days of giant trade shows where attendees are weighed down with bags of free samples…or look at the lines at cosmetics counters during promotion weeks. There are only two problems with this…

Nothing is really free. Just because you don’t have to pay for it doesn’t mean that someone somewhere didn’t have to pay for it—maybe even you, because the cost is baked into the price somewhere else.

When something is given for free—or received for free—providers have less incentive to provide quality. Why should they invest if there is no return on that investment?

Let’s talk about the quality of free stuff first…

A while back, I told the story of our flat-tire adventure in California in my blog titled Ask Someone’s Name and See What Happens. What I didn’t mention in that blog is that after we hit a pothole and before we called a tow truck, we went to multiple gas stations to try to fill the leak in our tire and we found one broken air hose after another. But here’s the interesting part—the sign on each air machine said there was a $1.50 charge for air. After we had used up all the quarters in our pockets, a kind stranger told us at machine #3 that, in California, air was free. Aha! No wonder the air machines weren’t working—what incentive was there for the gas stations to fix them? These weren’t local service stations that would gain future business from giving a great experience. These were gas-pumping mega-centers that sold refreshments in the mini-mart. Of course they weren’t going to worry about whether or not the free air machines worked.

I learned an important lesson about “free” many years ago when a friend came over to feng shui my house. After I gave her the birth dates for my husband and children, she outlined the colors that would be best for each of us and the best furniture placement in each room based on energy flow and our meridians. It was super-interesting.

When she was done, she said that while she would love to simply have done it out of friendship, she had to charge me a token amount for her services. Why? Because she believed that something given without value in return loses its value to the recipient. In other words, in order for me to benefit from the lessons she had shared, I would have to have some “skin in the game.” And for all of you cynics out there, this woman was not intentionally giving me a pitch so that I would pay her. She was financially secure and certainly didn’t need the small amount I paid her. She just wanted me to value what I had learned.

Think about it—do you treasure the items you get for free in the same way that you treasure something that required your blood, sweat and tears and a whole lot of patience? How many women have drawers full of free cosmetics they waited online for during promotion week? Is there any child who really needs all the candy he/she gets at Halloween? Or is it just about getting as much free candy as possible?

Free things are not respected by either the giver or the recipient.

OK, enough with the spiritual aspects of “free stuff.” Let’s talk dollars and cents. At the risk of stating the obvious, nothing is really free—the money to pay for it must come from somewhere.

When credit card issuers offer you free miles or 0% interest as an incentive to sign up for their cards, they have calculated the transaction fees and interest that they will earn when you buy stuff with that card. They know the profit they need to make and structure their business accordingly.

True confessions: Even when Bottom Line offers free books to encourage new customers to subscribe to our publications or buy our books, we have taken into account the cost of the free bonuses somewhere else in the cost formula, be it in the price of the products or, if necessary, in the quality of the paper being used for that giveaway (of course, the content continues to be first-rate and “priceless”—that is our brand promise).

And of course, there are all those people who believe that socialized medicine is actually free. After all, it is free in Europe and Canada…it should be free here, too, right? Sure anything can be free as long as the government is collecting nearly 50% in taxes from the upper brackets—far, far greater than the taxes in all US tax brackets. Free is not free. That money comes from somewhere either directly from taxpayers’ pockets or indirectly from taxpayer’s pockets after the government increases corporate taxes. Yes… higher taxes on corporations translates into higher prices for consumers.

When managed care was first introduced in the 1980s, the insurance company at the ad agency where I worked explained that the goal of managed care was to share the responsibility with the patient. It was each patient’s job to keep his/her eyes out for errors or overcharges. Should the patients find any, the insurance company would share the found money with us. They wanted people to take responsibility for the treatment they were getting and to feel the impact of the cost and/or cost savings. But somehow that has gotten lost in the health-care debate, and it’s now simply about who pays those rising bills, not about truly cutting health-care costs.

If government were interested in cutting healthcare costs, then they would be promoting more preventive and self care for everything from diabetes to heart disease and yes, COVID.  Rather than incent people with donuts to get vaccines, they should be explaining that excess donuts and other dietary and lifestyle choices that increase obesity also increases the risk of getting and dying from COVID.  But.. the message to consumers is “the vaccine is free so don’t worry about being personally responsible for your health.”  No.. it’s not free. It’s costing us billions and billions of dollars to give those free vaccines.

New York and California recently started free tuition for many students at state- and city-run universities. My own alma mater, Hamilton College, is proud of its need-blind acceptance policies in which it accepts students based on ability and determines how to cover the costs later. A noble thought, but who is ultimately going to pay for those students’ educations? Increased taxes for all and increased tuitions for students who are paying for their own educations at the public universities…and generous donors at private institutions like Hamilton.

This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be support for those who are at the lower end of the income scale. My point here is that free is not free. Proponents of these measures should understand that every dollar that goes toward free goods and services is a dollar that is not being spent investing in or supporting other goods and services. And, given the value recipients place on free items, shouldn’t there be some quid-pro-quo in there?   A requirement of effort in return for the free food, healthcare, housing, etc?

Here’s one more thing to think about the next time you’re indulging in your “free-dom.” Even when no money transfers hands, there still is an expectation of return on investment. Facebook and Google are free, but they really are tracking your entire life and leveraging your data to sell ads. Those “free samples” of medication at the doctor’s office are provided in the hope (dare I say, presumption) that you will be become a regular user—and purchaser—of that product.

What’s the upshot of all of this? In order for society to continue to grow, we need to understand that “free” is a dangerous seduction…a narcotic, if you will, that is difficult to forgo once you have tasted it. Why pay if you can get it for free? Why work if others will cover the costs or if the government wants to pay me whether I work or not? Because without appreciation for the value of goods and effort, we are destined to collapse under our own weight of entitlement and gluttony. 

There isn’t a town, city or business that isn’t currently suffering from a lack of workers. It’s not that there aren’t workers to work – but when unemployment payments outstrip income and rental/mortgage obligations aren’t being enforced, then where’s the incentive to work?

Dangling the carrot of “free stuff” is not the hallmark of a free society.  In fact, it is just the opposite, creating a structure that removes free choice from individuals while creating an environment  where everyone must follow the rules or else no more goodies.

That’s a very high price to pay.

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