Is There Such a Thing As a Free Lunch?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 04 September 2019
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Conventional wisdom holds that there is no such thing as a "free lunch," meaning that every act, no matter how selfless or generous it may appear to be, carries with it some sort of hidden cost or obligation. This hidden cost may be a quid pro quo arrangement, in which the recipient of a "free" service or other benefit becomes obligated to repay the donor in kind at a later date. Another outcome of such an arrangement could be an obligation to pay for a more expensive service or product. When cellular phone companies offer potential customers a "free" phone, for example, there is often a condition attached which requires a multi-year contract for required services.

The concept of a "free lunch" actually started in the days of the American saloon. Saloon owners would frequently drum up business by offering a free lunch to anyone who entered their establishments. These offerings ranged from basic sandwiches to elaborate seafood and steak plates. The catch was that recipients of this lunch had to purchase at least one alcoholic drink at full price. While some customers balked at this requirement, most agreed to the condition. The price of a drink was still cheaper than the equivalent cost of such a meal at a restaurant.


The feasibility of a metaphorical free lunch often extends into economics and politics. Again, many experts agree that there is no such thing as a free lunch when it comes to the world's macroeconomy. Grain donated to a drought-stricken country may spare its population from starvation, for instance, but the producers of that grain still have to absorb the costs of producing, storing and delivering it. Obviously there is no truly free lunch as long as there are expenses incurred somewhere to provide it. But it could also be argued that the food donations saved an entire workforce from starving to death, and their contributions to the world's economy would far outweigh the costs of keeping them alive until they could recover from the drought.

Even when thinking in the most charitable way possible, it is very difficult for any organization to provide a truly free lunch. Recipients of material and financial assistance from non-profit or governmental aid programs may be strongly urged to contribute equivalent "sweat equity" in order to receive ongoing benefits. Religious organizations may provide food, clothing and shelter to the needy, but they could also ask recipients to attend religious services in order to receive the relief. None of these conditions might be considered unreasonable, but they are conditions nonetheless.

In this case, conventional wisdom may have gotten it right. While hoping for a truly "free lunch" for the world's neediest populations may still be a laudable goal, there are economic, political and social realities which currently make it extremely difficult to implement such a program on a global scale.


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Post 3

Nope, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Even when universities or the government gives education grants for people to get graduate and doctoral degrees, they are obligated to serve that institution or sector afterward.

My sister in law is getting her doctoral degree, she was given a grant by her university that paid for her courses and research expenses. But it's not for free. She has to stay and work for the University for two years after she finishes. If she doesn't, she would be forced to pay back her grant money.

So even though many things look as though they are free, it never is. In a way, it's like a trick. Because if

you misunderstood and really thought that it was free, you would be faced with some bad consequences, maybe even legal ones.

I guess the term "free" is so desirable that it immediately attracts people. But "free" is just too good to be true. Everything has a price!

Post 2

I think there is such a thing as a free lunch or there should be.

I am saying this because I have learned a lot about Japan recently, and had a chance to follow news about how the Japanese reacted to the most recent earthquakes and tsunami. What I learned is that Japanese people think of themselves as a community. So they not only think about their well being but also the community's and the nation's well being.

For example, one article talked about how Japanese grocery stores were still full of food and necessities because people were not buying more than what they immediately needed, so that others would have enough to buy as well.


was so shocked. I can't imagine this happening in this country. I'm sure we would all rush to the store, stock up on everything and clear out isles. Someone out there would reach the store not finding what they need.

So there is such a thing as a free lunch, but maybe not everywhere. Do you agree with me?

Post 1

We studied about different cultures which very much live by this statement in class.

In some cultures, if someone does another a favor, it is given that this favor will be returned at some point in the future. Even if that person doesn't want anything at that time, they may call up five years later and ask for a return on their favor.

The more interesting aspect is that this concept went beyond two people who help each other out. For example, if you do me a favor that I have not returned and let's say that a friend of your friend needs something that I can do for them, you can ask for your favor on their behalf.

I think this shows that humans are pretty individualistic. We are not able to be completely selfless. Even relations can be like bartering when people think along these lines.

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