Hi everyone,

Hopefully your holidays are going well. In the spirit of "holy shit why do things cost so much?" let's discuss something that irritates me (like so many things): people saying something should be "free."

Free. It's such a great word, right? It means to be lacking in cost. Without a price. Costless. 0 dollars. It's great, right? Fantastic, even. Freeeeeee. Except free is a lie. Free doesn't exist. Nothing in life is free. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch (TANSTAAFL.) Remember this and let it be your mantra in how you explore everything ever in life. Everything costs something, including doing nothing. If someone tries to give you something for "free," the first question should always be, "How much does it cost?" or "What will this cost me.?" If they persist in telling you it's still free, then you're probably at Costco eating cheese off a toothpick. In any case, arguments that start from the basis that a good or resource should be free are always bad. Let's explore popular examples and why pricing that good accordingly still makes sense while entirely ignoring how to adequately price it.

Water: It's Everywhere, but I Want a Drink

Water. We all need water, right? It's wet, it keeps us from dying of not having water, and it lets plants grow which keeps us from dying of not having food. Water is awesome. Unfortunately, it's also incredibly badly managed and way too cheap in many societies. Yet people will say, "water should be freeeee!" because they think water just magically appears from their taps. But that's silly. Water is incredibly expensive to collect, purify, and allocate. Dams cost money, reservoirs cost money, pumps cost money, pipes cost money. The only thing that's free in the allocation of water is gravity when putting in an aqueduct (and even that costs us if we want to go uphill!) There is no way to ever make water "free." Worse yet, cheap water lets people waste it. Fun experiment for Americans: take an Australian to anywhere in the US and ask them if they think our water usage habits are okay. Relative scarcity at work!

But the poor need water, right? Of course they do. So do the rich. And the middle class. And cute puppies. So people get on their keyboards and proclaim, "water should be a right!" And yes, it should be. But that doesn't mean it's free. It should be priced according to its relative scarcity and cost to allocate. So, water in SoCal, where I live, should cost more per liter than water in NY, where I used to live. Simple reason: it's more scarce and costly to provide here. We shouldn't have lawns the size of golf courses in SoCal (well, at all really...) and we probably shouldn't be diverting tons of water to the desert to grow things. But here we are. And you know why we can do this?

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Cheap, ubiquitous water. Water "rights." The notion that water is free to all. The tragedy of the commons at its most blatant.

And yet we persist in arguing that water should be "free." Mind blowing when you think about it.

A Freebie A Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Anyone who's ever gotten older than a fetus has been to a doctor. We all love and hate doctors. They provide a service we all need but rarely want, and they all seem to have the coldest hands. Why are doctors' hands so cold, and what do they make stethoscopes out of, if not ice? Yet, we all should agree that medicine is a scarce resource that needs pricing, right? In many discussions of how to better price healthcare, you see people who argue simply that "it should be cheaper" based on a rights-based model of healthcare allocation. I've even met people who argue that healthcare should be "free." But when you ask, "how do we pay doctors, nurses, surgeons, techs, and everyone else, they say, "I dunno, but it should be free." Let's assume, if only for a second, that we lived in a world where we had unlimited energy and MRIs. What would be the limiting resource here?

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Time.

Time is the most important resource that people ignore so frequently, and yet it's what we have in the smallest, finite quantities. Yet people treat time as "free." We even say, "free time." What an oxymoron! Time is costly, if only in terms of your body fighting entropy in its inevitable creep toward the unknown. Even if we could give doctors free textbooks made of unicorn magic, we still couldn't give them more time.

"But what if we solve the problem of mortality, what then? HUH?" Well, then I'm off to Aruba to do nothing and let my robot couch feed me grapes. But in the meantime, the answer remains: people will still have opportunity costs. Becoming a doctor is long, grueling work. Memorizing textbooks larger than the pile of catalogs Restoration Hardware dumps on people's doorsteps is the opposite of fun. There will still be a scarcity of people able and willing to do it.

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Scarcity will always be with us. Nothing is free.

Nothing is Free: And That's Okay

If you're a fan of media like I am (and if not, what's wrong with you?) then you may have realized by now that Star Trek and Wall*E are two sides of the same coin: what happens if people no longer have scarcity as an issue?

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In Star Trek, people take to the stars to explore new worlds and either have sex with everyone or wax poetic about the Prime Directive. In Wall*E, people get fat and go on AIM and stop trying to do anything.

Frankly, I think Wall*E is more realistic. If the questions are answered, people stop asking. Scarcity keeps people hungry. It makes them want to solve problems and make things better. Solving issues of scarcity is what makes life better, more exciting, and more interesting for everyone. It's also why when we discuss how to approach resource allocation, it should never be about "free," but about "affordable and accessible." Pricing things fairly is a GOOD thing, because it means we fairly allocate scarce resources in the most equitable way possible. Sometimes that means cheaply, sometimes it means not cheaply.

In the end, it's okay if we accept that things cost something. Starting from that basis is actually the best basis possible because it assumes we have to consider the complexity of allocating it. The second we say "free," we are in trouble. If only because now we're still at Costco, and why the hell am I still eating this cheese?!

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Why Does This Matter?

Simple: how we approach allocation of resources is at the core of feminism. It's at the core of how we approach who does what, and why. Realizing that things and actions are inherently costly helps us to better inform ourselves of our decisions, economic or otherwise. In the case of birth control, for instance, when we say, "free birth control" provided by the state or private health insurance, we don't really mean "free." We mean publicly- or group-subsidized and provided. And that's fine. But it's one area where we have to admit that critics have a point: these programs have a cost.

Instead of arguing that things should be free, we should instead argue why the cost is worth bearing. Or why the return is greater than the cost. By doing so, you can better support the position. We don't want free healthcare. We want well-allocated healthcare. We want publicly distributed birth control because it provides a significant economic benefit to control the timing of pregnancies.

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So remember: you don't want free things. You want things that have a cost but you are willing to shoulder it with everyone because you want the benefits.