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TANSTAAFL - There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

"There is no such thing as a free lunch" (alternatively, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch" or other variants) is a popular adage communicating the idea that it is impossible to get something for nothing. The acronyms TANSTAAFL, TINSTAAFL, and TNSTAAFL are also used. The phrase was in use by the 1930s, but its first appearance is unknown. The "free lunch" in the saying refers to the nineteenth-century practice in American bars of offering a "free lunch" in order to entice drinking customers. The phrase and the acronym are central to Robert Heinlein's 1966 science fiction novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which helped popularize it. The free-market economist Milton Friedman also popularized the phrase by using it as the title of a 1975 book, and it is used in economics literature to describe opportunity cost.


TANSTAAFL, Jargon File


The Drug War as a Socialist Enterprise, by Milton Friedman, 16 Nov 1991
Keynote address at Fifth International Conference on Drug Policy Reform; examines why, 20 years after his admonition against the drug war, the government continues its attempts at enforcement, in spite of the observable, predicted results; includes Q&A
Let me illustrate with a few quotations from letters ... "Instead of merely decriminalizing drugs, let's have the government make available drugs free to every user." That would obviously take the profit out of the business. The idea is that somehow or other we ought to treat drugs as a free good. But there are no free goods; there's no free lunch. It's not free; somebody would have to pay for it. So, we ought to tax the taxpayer to subsidize people who use drugs! More important, it seems obvious that if those "free" drugs were really available, they would be distributed in Europe and elsewhere where there's a paying market.
Economics 101, by Walter E. Williams, 7 Jun 2000
After describing some basic economics principles, examines worthwhile rationales for public-policy mandates such as setting a 5 mph national speed limit or requiring gun safety-locks to prevent child deaths from gun accidents
Or, as my colleague Professor Milton Friedman puts it, 'There's no free lunch.' ... With any public policy, there's a benefit and there's a cost. Intelligent public-policy discussion requires an examination to determine whether benefits outweigh costs. For example, there'd be a clear benefit to mandating a national speed limit of 5 mph. ... We sensibly conclude, without saying so, that a 5 mph speed limit and the lives it would save wouldn't be worth the hassle. The lesson here is that we can't simply look at the benefits. If we only look at benefits, we'd do just about anything because everything has a benefit.
Related Topics: Children, Economics
Robert A. Heinlein's Soaring Spirit of Liberty, by Jim Powell, The Freeman, Jul 1997
Biographical essay, including multiple quotes from fellow authors and significant excerpts from Heinlein's novels and stories
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress sounds one of Heinlein's favorite philosophical themes: "'tanstaafl.' Means 'There ain't no such thing as a free lunch' ... anything free costs twice as much in long run or turns out worthless. ... One way or other, what you get, you pay for."
TANSTAAFL, There Ain't No Such Thing as a Free Lunch, by David R. Henderson, 3 Mar 2014
Explains the two meanings of TANSTAAFL: the scarcity of economic resources (and the need for tradeoffs) and the expectation of some kind of reciprocity when something is offered for "free"
There are two meanings of the expression. One is always true, while the other is usually true. First, let's consider the meaning that's always true: Economic resources are scarce, and, therefore, if we get more of one, there has to be less of another ... The fact that the vast majority of goods are scarce, not free, leads directly to tradeoffs. If we want more of something, we have to give up some of something else ... Now to the second meaning of TANSTAAFL ... When someone offers you something for free, he or she usually expects something in return.
There's No Free Lunch, by Walter E. Williams, 3 Oct 2001
Criticizes comments from Paul Krugman made after the 11 Sep 2001 attacks that they "could do some economic good", pointing out the lessons from Bastiat's "Seen and Not Seen"
Each semester, I spend a few minutes explaining to my students, both graduate and undergraduate, the first and second laws of thermodynamics. Why? Mother Nature permits us to do many things, but she prohibits the construction of machines of the first and second kinds. The first is a something-for-nothing machine, and the second is a perpetual motion machine. If students understand this, they can't be tricked into believing there's a free lunch. Dr. Paul Krugman, Princeton University economist and New York Times writer, apparently believes in the machine of the first kind.
Related Topic: Frédéric Bastiat
An Unstimulating Idea, by Sheldon Richman, The Goal Is Freedom, 25 Jan 2008
Examines the economic "stimulus" proposals being made by "everyone and his uncle" during the 2008 United States elections
[P]oliticians love to talk about "injecting" money into the economy, like a doctor giving a patient a transfusion ... "But where does the economic injection come from? ... It's not an outside stimulus ... It means taking money from someone or somewhere inside the system and giving it to someone else." ... If the government uses fiscal means to goose the economy, the money has to come from somewhere. There is no free lunch. The president and the top-tier candidates do not propose to cut spending—quite the contrary. So, ... any tax "rebates" and new government spending will have to come from borrowing.
Related Topics: Free Market, Government

The introductory paragraph uses material from the Wikipedia article "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch" as of 20 Nov 2018, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.