Free lunch

September 24, 2011

Amanda is taking a class in “Political Literature,” and one of the books on her reading list is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein. Julia couldn’t find a copy at Half Price Books, so I checked it out from the library. Of course, I had to reread it before passing it on to Amanda.

In this book Heinlein popularized the acronym TANSTAAFL, “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.” After I finished, I decided I needed to reread Hugh Nibley’s essay “Work We Must, but the Lunch Is Free.” (It’s collected in Approaching Zion.) Now, Nibley’s piece isn’t exactly a rebuttal to Heinlein’s point (I’m pretty sure Nibley was familiar with Heinlein’s book.) For Heinlein, TANSTAAFL is almost a rephrasing of the First Law of Thermodynamics: you can’t get something for nothing. It also includes the idea that you should always seek out hidden costs and concealed motives. The only time he applies the phrase to actual lunch is when the main character points out that a bar owner offering free lunches expects to make back more than the cost of the lunches on additional liquor sales. He names the third and last part TANSTAAFL, and this is the part where all the consequences come to pass, including the deaths of all the people killed in the Lunar Revolution.

Nibley, on the other hand, is talking about consecration. He is attacking people who use the “no free lunch” idea to justify oppressing or neglecting the poor. Allowing anybody to go without lunch even on the grounds that they haven’t done anything to deserve it won’t cut it with God. Although much of his rhetoric is directed at people operating in a capitalist society, he makes it clear that communists are no better—for them, getting lunch is contingent on obeying the state. We have an unconditional obligation to try to prevent people from starving, to make sure that everyone’s basic needs are met. (Also, he makes it clear that this only applies to basic needs, the things you literally can’t live without.)

Anyway, I’ll end with a suggestion that if you haven’t read one or both of these writings, you do so some day.