There is no Free Lunch

A few days ago, LI president Morton Blackwell told me that when he was a college student at LSU, he and his friends heard Milton Friedman was available to speak for free at Morton's campus group. 

They were eager to bring such a distinguished intellectual to their university! 

This “free,” of course, meant he wouldn’t charge any amount for himself, but the hosts would have to pay the travel and accommodation costs. 

In the end, there was no free Friedman.

One of the most famous Milton Friedman quotes states, “there is no such thing as a free lunch,” an ironic response to the tremendous demand for “free stuff” by the socialists he debated.  The phrase meant that no government program is free.  The taxpayer always pays (an expensive bill) in the end.

The first time I heard this quote, I was an 18-year-old college freshman at the University of Brasilia back in Brazil, my home country.  I was taking an Introduction to Economics class, and the professor repeated the quote while explaining the foundations of microeconomics. 

That stuck in my mind.  I was not a socialist, but I believed that more government intervention – more of the right intervention – could work.  I thought that because I always looked at the benefits of government programs while ignoring the costs.  That quote changed everything. 

From that day on, I would always remember that there was no free lunch, and government programs cost too much and deliver too little.

In the last two weeks, I have finished re-reading Milton Friedman’s book Capitalism and Freedom, as part of my LI internship book discussion program.  I felt the passion my friends and I expressed during the debate over the need for more school choice and less occupational licensing regulations in the US. Friedman was part of my freshman year in college and now is part of my freshman year as a young professional in DC. 

His ideas are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them.

They are relevant not only in the US but also in Brazil.  So relevant that Folha de Sao Paulo, the #1 national newspaper in Brazil – read by more than 20 million people every month – published an editorial within the last few weeks that has a title inspired by Friedman’s quote.  The article, a harsh critique on excessive regulations on airline companies, also mentions Friedman’s quote in both the introduction and conclusion.

Friedman won the Nobel Prize, advised President Regan, wrote best-sellers, made a TV series about economic freedom with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and now serves as inspiration for us at the Leadership Institute (LI) and even for big newspapers. Not bad at all, right?

Morton always says: “In politics, nothing moves unless pushed.”

Friedman pushed.  Now LI keeps pushing.