TANSTAAFL

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"There ain't no such thing as a free lunch" (alternatively, "There's no such thing as a free lunch" or other variants) is a popular adage communicating the idea that it is impossible to get something for nothing. The acronyms TANSTAAFL and TINSTAAFL are also used. Uses of the phrase dating back to the 1930s and 1940s have been found, but the phrase's first appearance is unknown.[1] The "free lunch" in the saying refers to the nineteenth century practice in American bars of offering a "free lunch" with drinks. The phrase and the acronym are central to Robert Heinlein's 1966 libertarian science fiction novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which popularized it.[2][3] The free-market economist Milton Friedman also popularized the phrase[1] by using it as the title of a 1975 book, and it often appears in economics textbooks;[4] Campbell McConnell writes that the idea is "at the core of economics".[5]

Contents

History and usage

"Free lunch"

The "free lunch" referred to in the acronym relates back to the once-common tradition of saloons in the United States providing a "free" lunch to patrons who had purchased at least one drink. Rudyard Kipling, writing in 1891, noted how he came upon a bar room full of bad Salon pictures, in which men with hats on the backs of their heads were wolfing food from a counter.

“It was the institution of the "free lunch" I had struck. You paid for a drink and got as much as you wanted to eat. For something less than a rupee a day a man can feed himself sumptuously in San Francisco, even though he be a bankrupt. Remember this if ever you are stranded in these parts.″[6]

TANSTAAFL, on the other hand, indicates an acknowledgment that in reality a person or a society cannot get "something for nothing". Even if something appears to be free, there is always a cost to the person or to society as a whole even though that cost may be hidden or distributed. For example, as Heinlein has one of his characters point out, a bar offering a free lunch will likely charge more for its drinks.[7]

Early uses

According to Robert Caro, Fiorello La Guardia, on becoming mayor of New York in 1934, said "È finita la cuccagna!", meaning "No more free lunch"; in this context "free lunch" refers to graft and corruption.[1] The earliest known occurrence of the full phrase, in the form "There ain’t no such thing as free lunch", appears as the punchline of a joke related in an article in the El Paso Herald-Post of June 27, 1938, entitled "Economics in Eight Words".[8] In 1945 "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch" appeared in the Columbia Law Review, and "there is no free lunch" appeared in a 1942 article in the Oelwein Daily Register (in a quote attributed to economist Harley L. Lutz) and in a 1947 column by economist Merryle S. Rukeyser.[2][9] In 1949 the phrase appeared in an article by Walter Morrow in the San Francisco News (published on 1 June) and in Pierre Dos Utt's monograph, "TANSTAAFL: a plan for a new economic world order",[10] which describes an oligarchic political system based on his conclusions from "no free lunch" principles.

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