All week, I’ve been thinking about free stuff. Specifically, which things should be free to all Americans. I admit that I’m a big fan of free stuff generally (who doesn’t like free?) but the issue was brought into sharper focus after two conversations with friends.

The first involves a friend who is being sued by the state over an unemployment claim. She can’t afford a lawyer, but the local legal aid group won’t help her because she still has a pittance in her retirement accounts. There’s two things that bug me about this: civil claims, especially when they’re brought by a government agency, should also be subject to free legal counsel. In my friend’s case, it’s pretty clear to me that the state agency that’s suing her isn’t really after the money; they’re trying to get the courts or the legislature to clear up a statute. But in the meantime, my friend is going through months of stress and fear as she tries to represent herself over a sum that will mean nothing to the state agency but could ruin a person who lives paycheck-to-paycheck.

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The second conversation followed this story about the Israeli professor who quieted a baby in class. I remarked on my Facebook page that I think letting young parents bring their kids to class is a good start to helping them out. But the bigger thing to me is not that I think students should be allowed to bring infants to class, but that I think free or cheap childcare should be provided. And not just during “normal” working hours. What good is a 7 pm class to a working parent if they can’t also get affordable childcare in the evening? And yet you see all of these campus daycare centers offering banker’s hours.

My most-libertarian friend was pretty scornful, asking if I thought silver spoons should be free.

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No, no, no. Of course not. Except . . . if you’re in traction and can’t feed yourself, somebody’s got to feed you, and that should be free.

Basically, what it comes down to is this: if it keeps you alive and makes it possible for you to contribute to society, it should be free or subsidized. It doesn’t have to be fancy. I’m fine with Harvard costing an arm and a leg; I’m not fine with going into debt for community college.

So all week long, I’ve been thinking about what all meets my standard of what should be free.

This is what I’ve come up with:

  1. An address (you need one in order to apply for a job). Even better: a place to live.
  2. Healthcare
  3. Basic nutrition (the food pyramid, but cheaply; think beans instead of beef, strawberries instead of kumquats).
  4. Water
  5. Heat
  6. Education
  7. Childcare
  8. A communication device (because you often can’t apply for a job without a phone number or email address)
  9. Libraries (because information wants to be free, and even if it doesn’t, people want it to be free, and there needs to be a place where we can go to get it even if we can’t afford a laptop and wi-fi)
  10. Actually, wi-fi.
  11. Transportation subsidies (sliding scale type things)
  12. Basic hygiene stuff (for the body and the home, for various ages)
  13. Identification card, birth certificate, etc
  14. 3 days worth of clothes, one coat, one pair of shoes every year.
  15. Legal counsel when you are charged with a crime or sued by the state

What do you think? When in doubt, you should assume I mean the cheap version. I don’t think the government should be paying for granite countertops. But I think government housing should exist and it should have countertops of some kind.

Next time: things that should be free because it’s annoying to have to pay for them. Like Taco Bell. It should be free with all concert ticket purchases.

Image via Flickr user Tracy_Olson.