| July 30, 2013

Retire the idea of ‘free’

Recently, a new acquaintance helpfully offered me a list of “free” events in Oklahoma City and hospitably urged me to unite with her as she attended them.

“Join this young adult group,” she urged. “So far, we’ve gone to a free Thunder game and a free happy hour. This week, we’re going to a free Redhawks game.”

Later, she texted me to tell me the Myriad Gardens occasionally offers “free” movie nights.

The exchanges were redolent of conversations I used to have with canny classmates in college. My savviest friends could blithely articulate how a shrewd student could eat for “free” every night of the week.

Sure, he’d have to feign enthusiasm for the vagaries of four different Christian denominations or she’d have to pretend to befriend a couple of sorority coeds, but neither would ever have to pay a penny for pizza or chili!

Then, as now, I had a reluctant admiration for such friends who, with their impressive insider knowledge and merry appetite for society and sustenance, cut such a seemingly agreeable path through college and young adulthood.

Yet, as I listened to my new friend, whose intentions were so clearly pure, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “We should hereby retire the word ‘free’ forever and ever, amen.”

We should – at least in the context of material goods. It’s simply too confusing a term.

No matter how many times economists repeat Milton Friedman’s impossible-to-improve axiom, no matter how many times angry taxpayers mark their tweets with the hashtag #tanstaafl, the eternal optimists will insist: “Oh, but this lunch is free!”

Better to say, “This lunch comes at no cost to me.” At least the presence of the term “cost” in such a sentence implies a cost was borne by someone else.

A quick Google search demonstrates that Sonic presents the Myriad Gardens movie nights. Here’s hoping the Sonic higher-ups who agreed to that sponsorship really did intend it as an expression of the corporate conscience and not as good business. Anecdotal evidence suggests movie-goers don’t fully appreciate America’s Drive-in!

Because I didn’t ask my friend to elaborate, I’m not sure who exactly funds the young adult group events that, admittedly, sound like worthwhile and meaningful gifts to give to cash-strapped, probably-student-loan-burdened young professionals.

That’s precisely the point, though: The tickets are not free. They’re gifts from someone, somewhere, and to call them “free” deprives not only the nameless benefactor, but also the beneficiary, who consequently misses the opportunity to experience gratitude.

In the same way, no government service is ever free. Food stamps, compliments of the taxpayer! Housing, compliments of the taxpayer! Health care, compliments of the taxpayer!

Many millennials cite precarious financial predicaments as a prime reason they perceive themselves as unable to marry and start families at the age their parents did. If the gift of a ticket to a Thunder game means even one young adult saves the average ticket price of the game and stashes those savings in his marriage and family fund, I support that gift – but I will not then or ever refer to the ticket as “free.”

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