Free Stuff: Is There Any?

It's smart for taxpayers to cover certain costs


Politics Virtue

I’ve often heard it said that “Life isn’t just.” Well, maybe. And maybe that’s why so many of us are keen on “free stuff.” But is there any?

A Libertarian with whom I debate thinks that there’s lots of it. For a start, paying taxes should be optional. And if we choose to pay taxes, we should be free to earmark our money for programs we like. We should also be free to use drugs or not, free to prostitute ourselves or not. On his view, “free stuff” should include the money we don’t use to pay taxes, the altered states of consciousness we crave, and our bodies.

So I tell him that freedom is not just being unrestricted. I point out that being “free as a bird” is scant recompense for…being a bird. Freedom is an achievement. But, no, he tells me, freedom is a God-given right. Well, yes and no. Yes, God gives us intelligence and free will, and in doing so He creates us in His own image and likeness. But no, God doesn’t give us self-mastery; it is an achievement. In politics it is painfully obvious that we have to achieve democracy and work for peace.

To be sure, it’s easier to think of money as “stuff” than to designate democracy and peace as such. Still, in today’s political swamps there’s always the temptation to try to buy democracy and a peace that falls far short of the work of justice.

But let’s turn from abstract to material stuff. A majority of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District qualify for both free breakfast and free lunch. During the pandemic, the District’s chief accomplishment was providing both. (Classroom instruction was put on hold.) Now don’t get me wrong. The District did the right thing. Still the lunch, not to mention the breakfast, wasn’t free. Long term studies have shown that there is no free lunch. The taxpayers footed the bill, including Libertarians.

Of course, students have to get to school, at least when school is in session. Now comes a new idea. Rather than require students to pay bus fare, especially students who haven’t yet had breakfast, to get from home (however humble) to school, why not offer free bus transportation? Remember: the District has well over 600,000 students; yellow school buses won’t do the job. In fact, why not offer free bus transportation to the disabled and the elderly as well? Come to think of it, why not think big and make the use of our Rapid Transportation System free for everyone? Doing so might drastically reduce traffic pollution.

Students of decision theory, along with public radio stations, are acutely aware of “the free rider problem.” It’s the vexing problem of people who take advantage of public service without paying for it. Since I’m one of those who listens to a classical music station without chipping in during its fundraising drives, I’m part of the problem.

But truth be told, I don’t see free bus service in Los Angeles as part of the “free rider problem.” Here’s why. Taxpayers, if they are smart, would do well to cover the cost in lost revenue. In doing so they, a.k.a. we, would make public and private education more accessible and help the disabled and the elderly be more mobile. And, if we decide to think even bigger, we would all be able to breathe more freely. And that, gentle reader, would be a real achievement!


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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