In English, this is a popular phrase that suggests you can’t get something for nothing. (Readers, is there a similar saying in other languages?) Like many common phrases, its origin is shrouded in mystery.
At the heart of the phrase, the concept of a “free lunch” refers to the late 1800’s practice of American saloons offering a no-cost lunch to customers who purchased a drink. Even though the lunches were worth more than the price of the drink, the expectation was that most patrons would buy more than one drink and that they would become loyal customers. In other words, the proprieters wanted the free lunch to have hidden costs.
One of the earliest mentions of this practice of giving free lunches is in the 1872 NY Times article called “The Loafer and Free Lunch Men”. While the article suggests that the practice was not very successful, it doesn’t explicitly use the phrase.
In the Yale Alumni Magazine, Fred Shapiro traces the phrase’s origin to a June 27, 1938 El Paso Herald-Post called “Economics in Eight Words.” A king asks his advisors to summarize economics in a simple way. Because being brief is hard,
they respond with 87 volumes of 600 pages each, drawing the king’s wrath and accompanying executions. Further demands and more executions force ever-briefer summations, until, finally, the last economist, “a man of profound wisdom,” speaks: “Sire, in eight words I will reveal to you all the wisdom that I have distilled through all these years from all the writings of all the economists who once practiced their science in your kingdom.
Here is my text: ‘There ain’t no such thing as free lunch.’
From an economics point of view, there’s no such thing as free lunch demonstrates the concept of opportunity cost. While something might not have an explicit price, hidden or implicit costs must be considered to understand the full picture. Because implicit costs are usually not obvious, especially to the casual observer, the concept of ‘free’ is an extremely powerful marketing tool. “Buy one, get one free” requires you to buy one — often one of something you might not have otherwise purchased.
It’s time to get back to the seemingly free lunch provided by my employer.