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Friday Philosophy – Is a “Free Lunch” Only Ever a Mirage? Look Closer! December 16, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions, Private Life.
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Nearly all of us have heard (or even used) the phrase “There is no such thing as a free lunch” and we know what it means – if something of value is provided for no up-front cost, you are paying for it in some other way. According to the Wikipedia entry for it the phrase could have originated from US bars that offered a free meal with a drink, but the meal was salty and so made you want to drink more. Now you know why some up-market bars offer free salty nibbles, it’s so they can sell you more beer and the extra profit is more than peanuts.

Milton Friedman wrote a book about the lack of cost-less consumables

Milton Friedman wrote a book about the lack of cost-less consumables

I recently saw a post in a discussion thread I was watching about business interaction which said “well, I think this is OK as there is no such thing as a free lunch”. It made me pause because I realised that there are free lunches.

Why? Because the person writing it, I know I could unexpectedly land in the airport near them (say we got diverted) at late-0’Clock, call them and say “could you please come and pick me up – and I’m hungry and I have nowhere to stay”. OK, it’s not lunch, it’s probably dinner or tea or supper. But I know I could do that and they would get me and feed me and make sure I was OK. Why? Because they are a friend. I’d get my free lunch and a free bed for the night – well, maybe a sofa with the dogs but, hey, am I picky? If things similarly went wrong the next month too, I feel I could again make the call and all I would get is some light-hearted banter about “this is becoming a habit!”.

The key difference is that business is not friendship. Business is all about making more money than you spend and if your company has shareholders, they generally want as big a dividend as possible. Making money does not match giving things away for free! Unless it is a short-term cost to prompt a larger eventual profit. Any business that does not aim to maximise profit is probably going to be less successful than a similar company in the same sector and will probably eventually fail {I know, there are rare exceptions to this}. I would argue that if your friendships are based on expectation of getting more out than you put in, you are living your life with the wrong philosophy!

You could argue that with friendship there is an expectation of reciprocation – if my friend landed at Stansted Airport and needed a bed and a meal and they let me know, they would get it. Heck, if they landed in Leeds airport (about 3 hours drive from here) they would probably still get it {if I was not too drunk to drive}. But no matter which of us had been the provider of the free lunch, I don’t think either of us would be walking around with a mental tally in our head saying something like “I need to get some payback from that guy – my next flight over there, I ain’t booking a hotel”.

I’ll give you another recent example. Another friend and I do a lot conferences, often in the same place. He is more organised than I and he has at times sorted out planes and hotels and just told me what I need to do, where to go and what I owe him. I pay him. Or I don’t and I pay for a meal or buy us beers or whatever it is we decide to do. We keep a rough tally. Hang on, didn’t I just suggest that friends don’t keep a tally? Well, we do. A rough tally. And the reason we both keep it is as we don’t want to take more than we give back – which is very different from ensuring we take back at least as much as we give. But the most interesting part of this is that last month, after I paid for a meal, I asked him what the balance was as I had lost track. He just looked at me and said “I have no idea – is it even?”. Who knows. Who cares? Part of me worries a little that I am in debt but I think he worries the same. In the end it is moot. Neither of us is counting anymore.

I’m sure we have all had the odd friend who does seem to take more than they ever give back (that Andy, never buys his round in the pub!) and if it is too extreme you might come to the conclusion that this is not a friend but a free-loader – and quietly drop them. But some people either just never think about it or might be a lot less well off than you and simply not want to admit it. And in the whole friendship scheme of things, reciprocation of favours should only ever be a part of it I think.

So in business I think the “no such thing as a free lunch” is pretty much a true state of affairs. In friendships, I’d like to think it is certainly not true. Friendship should not be like a business. If any of your friendships are, maybe they are more ‘mutual arrangements’.

“Hi, meet my mutual arrangement Dave. I’m currently up three beers on him, so he’s buying”.

So I think you can have a free lunch. They are provided by friends. I’ll be popping over to your place for one soon 🙂

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Comments»

1. jgarry - December 16, 2016

Breakfast, informative presentation and that Iron Man movie Larry was in from some net security company. Man, they hard-sell called for months after that. Definitely not worth the free, and net effect was hating that company. Especially a couple years later when they IPO’d.

Milton Friedman’s effect on public policy has been fodder for the conservatives who don’t understand free market limitations, including Reagan’s voodoo economics and what strange things we will see in the coming years.

2. David Harper - December 18, 2016

Didn’t German bierkellers invent the trick of giving away salty snacks (pretzels, in this case) to encourage their customers to buy more beer?

Also, the reciprocation of favours seems to be something that we humans are genetically pre-disposed to do. Other social species, such as chimpanzees, also exhibit the behaviour, apparently. Mind you, when was the last time a chimpanzee ever bought a round of drinks, eh?

mwidlake - December 18, 2016

I think the practice of using salty snacks (or even salting the beer!) has been a common trick across Europe for centuries David. Chimps would buy a round if only they wore trousers with pockets…


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