Free lunch

Yes, I read Heinlein decades ago, including The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. He didn’t coin TANSTAAFL, but that novel certainly publicized it.

TANSTAAFL? There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

Digression The First: As is so frequently the case with Wikipedia these days, the discussion on the article you wind up at–linked from TANSTAAFL, which apparently doesn’t meet Sacred Wikipedia Article Naming Conventions–is considerably more interesting than the article itself. Particularly when “Chuck” keeps arguing that “ain’t no” is a double negative and, thus, that TANSTAAFL means there is such a thing as a free lunch. End of Digression the First.

But That’s Silly

Yes, I understand the context Heinlein used, as part of the libertarian undercurrent running through much of his work: A saloon that provides free lunch when you buy a drink is likely to charge more for the drinks than one that doesn’t.


  • Later this week, probably, I’ll buy one of Safeway’s excellent special sandwiches, hand the checker a coupon, and walk out paying not a cent for lunch. Then, after paying for six sandwiches, I’ll do the same thing in a few weeks. (The ongoing promotion says “buy seven, get one free”–but, in fact, the one that you get free counts as a purchase, so after that it’s really pay for six, get one free.) Yes, it’s a loyalty program; no, the sandwiches don’t cost any more than sandwiches of equivalent quality I buy elsewhere. If they did, I wouldn’t buy them.
  • We find that Marco’s pizza is better than any other chain pizza we’ve had, and have it for dinner roughly every other Saturday night. Three Saturdays from now (I think), I’ll walk into Marco’s and hand them a little card with six holes punched in it instead of the $17.50 I’d normally pay for a pizza. Since a medium pizza leaves enough left over for my Sunday lunch, I will indeed have a free lunch on Sunday…and we’ll both have a free dinner on Saturday. Yes, it’s another loyalty program; I think the pizza is fairly priced for its quality.
  • “But you’re indirectly paying for those loyalty programs, so, you know, TANSTAAFL.” Maybe–if you can show me that I would get comparable quality for a lower cost (at a business that I’m willing to deal with) elsewhere. If not, then the lunch really is effectively free: I’m getting it for no added cost.
  • Let’s take a more extreme case, back from Mountain View days. Pick Up Stix (a chain of “fresh Asian” restaurants, where almost everything’s prepared in woks when you order it) had just opened a new location and sent out cards to neighborhood houses offering a free entree. No gotchas, no “buy one, get one free,” no nothing–just hand them the card and walk out with what turned out to be a pretty good meal. The restaurant did the same thing a few months later. Those free meals were essentially a form of advertising, so somebody paid for them–but I’d be hard pressed to show that the restaurant would or could charge significantly lower prices if it didn’t do advertising. After all, many people probably returned to pay for meals after getting the freebies.

Yes, There are Lots of Other Cases

OK, I know about such “free lunches” as–

  • Free meals that come with investment or retirement lectures, where you’re paying for the meal with your time and quite probably hard-sell marketing. Never signed up for one, never plan to.
  • Free vacations that require only a mere 90-minute marketing session on time-share vacations. Ditto: Never signed up for one, never plan to.
  • “Free drinks” on most ultra-luxury cruise lines and “free shore excursions” and “free airfare” on Regent Seven Seas, where “free” really means included and, for non-heavy-drinkers, the difference in fare may be significantly more than the inclusions are worth.

I’d rather see the third case, and many others like it, listed as “inclusive” rather than “free”–and, in fact, luxury cruise lines tend toward “inclusive,” just as all-inclusive vacation resorts do. In practice, actually, for some lines “free air fare” is an interesting way of handling discounts–the offer’s usually time-limited, but they don’t call it a discount as such.

TANSTAAFL and Win-Win Economics

Yes, I know, I’m being a literalist. Those who use TANSTAAFL don’t literally mean there’s never a free lunch (or maybe they do)–they mean that every form of refuge has its price, that we live in a closed universe, that there must be some form of cost or payment somewhere.

What I find a little too often–and why I’m writing this post (other than procrastinating on something else)–is that various forms of TANSTAAFL are used to argue zero-sum economics. I don’t buy that all or even most transactions must or should be zero-sum games, where A only “wins” because B “loses”: Where the lunch is only free because the business is overcharging, and in the end overcharging by more than the worth of the lunch.

I believe in win-win economics–not always, but often. In win-win economics, A and B make deals that are mutually beneficial: The benefits to each party outweigh the costs. Loyalty programs can work that way. Ideally, public libraries represent win-win economics: The cost to the community to prepay for library services through taxes is more than made up for by the benefits to individuals and to the community as a whole from library services. Benefit to the community as a whole is one reason that some people support public libraries that they don’t use–they recognize that a good library makes their town or city a better place to live. (The same can be said for parks and other non-emergency community services.)

I don’t have some stirring conclusion to wrap this all up. Hey, it’s Monday: Don’t expect miracles.

2 Responses to “Free lunch”

  1. Terry says:

    I don’t know if your Marco’s is the same as our Marco’s, but yes, I’ve been very impressed with their pizza. I’ve only ordered from them online though — it sounds like I’m missing out on their loyalty program.

  2. walt says:

    Doubtless the same chain. I do see we get coupons for $3-off-online-orders from time to time, which would cover the loyalty discount, more or less. (Ours is so nearby–less than half a mile–that I always pick up, and normally order by phone.)