When Free Isn’t Free

Richard Quinn

DO A QUICK REVIEW of Twitter and other social media sites, and you’ll find extensive use of the word “free.” The dictionary defines free as without cost or payment.”

College, health care, child care, preschool, even housing are often mentioned in connection with “free.” The actual cost of “free” may not be what it seems. Free in this context typically means shifting the cost from one person to another, or redirecting money to some favored purpose. The true cost of free may be an expense passed on to the next generation in the form of accumulated debt.

Free education in my community, for example, costs 58% of our $13,000 annual property tax bill. How often have you heard someone complain about property taxes? But at the same time, our public schools are popular and celebrated. Citizens complaining about their property taxes seldom draw the connection between their taxes and what the schools cost.

Even if they do, they’re not usually aware of the total cost. In many states, including mine, teachers’ pensions have never been adequately financed. The true cost is usually hidden from taxpayers as an unfunded obligation.

I imagine that everyone knows that nothing is truly free, so why are we so susceptible to the lure of free things? Well, it’s an easy concept to understand—and it sure sounds appealing.

But how accepting would we be if, instead of “free,” the cost of something was described as “hidden in your taxes”? Or what if something “free” came with the proviso that “the cost is to be paid by your children”?

Politicians use free to add appeal to a proposal. Yet often they do so without consideration of short-term costs and consequences or long-term government debt. Who will pay that burden in the future?

Social Security and Medicare are two excellent examples of short-term thinking. To avoid talking about costs, funding and taxes, politicians have allowed both programs to deteriorate slowly toward insolvency.

All the while, calls for free health care and enhanced Social Security benefits proliferate. These days, many citizens seem willing to abandon the broad-based funding of such social programs in favor of tapping only the “wealthy” to keep them going. As a society, are we any different from those families who live beyond their means and don’t save?

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