When Free Isn’t Free

Richard Quinn  |  Feb 24, 2023

DO A QUICK REVIEW of Twitter and other social media sites, and you’ll find extensive use of the word “free.” The dictionary defines free as “without cost or payment.”

College, health care, child care, preschool, even housing are often mentioned in connection with “free.” The actual cost of “free” may not be what it seems. Free in this context typically means shifting the cost from one person to another, or redirecting money to some favored purpose. The true cost of free may be an expense passed on to the next generation in the form of accumulated debt.

Free education in my community, for example, costs 58% of our $13,000 annual property tax bill. How often have you heard someone complain about property taxes? But at the same time, our public schools are popular and celebrated. Citizens complaining about their property taxes seldom draw the connection between their taxes and what the schools cost.

Even if they do, they’re not usually aware of the total cost. In many states, including mine, teachers’ pensions have never been adequately financed. The true cost is usually hidden from taxpayers as an unfunded obligation.

I imagine that everyone knows that nothing is truly free, so why are we so susceptible to the lure of free things? Well, it’s an easy concept to understand—and it sure sounds appealing.

But how accepting would we be if, instead of “free,” the cost of something was described as “hidden in your taxes”? Or what if something “free” came with the proviso that “the cost is to be paid by your children”?

Politicians use free to add appeal to a proposal. Yet often they do so without consideration of short-term costs and consequences or long-term government debt. Who will pay that burden in the future?

Social Security and Medicare are two excellent examples of short-term thinking. To avoid talking about costs, funding and taxes, politicians have allowed both programs to deteriorate slowly toward insolvency.

All the while, calls for free health care and enhanced Social Security benefits proliferate. These days, many citizens seem willing to abandon the broad-based funding of such social programs in favor of tapping only the “wealthy” to keep them going. As a society, are we any different from those families who live beyond their means and don’t save?

This article first appeared on HumbleDollar.com


  1. In terms of roads that are not free, that reminds me of President Obama on July 13, 2012 in a speech in Roanoke, VA where he said (in part):

    ” … look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. (Applause.)

    If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. …”

    Yes, President Obama, those were my taxes that contributed to the roads, funded government, supported charities, invested in enterprises, and yes, I funded my own education with deferred comp in the form of the GI bill, and my own wages – going to school at night full time while working full time during the day (for over 10 years). My efforts that helped out a lot of people, my Social Security and Medicare taxes are funding many other people’s benefits. But, it was only my mom and dad and my siblings, as well as my wife and now my adult children, and all of their encouragement and support, that provided me “privilege”, a “leg up”.

    Otherwise, I’m sure that I more than paid my own way in life, I’m the guy who helped others in your statement – unlike folks like you, President Biden and others who’ve been on the receiving end all or almost all of your life.


  2. “ But at the same time, our public schools are popular and celebrated. ”

    Like the 23 Baltimore schools without a single student performing at grade level? Yes, very “celebrated”. We might be better off offering vouchers for half the amount that public schools cost… win-win.


  3. “Free”, properly explained, as you do in the article, could also be properly explained to our students by our teachers, if they had the knowledge and impulse to do so. We’ve entered, over the past few decades, into a covetous, self-centered citizenry who are anticipating others providing for their needs with most statements starting with, “It just seems to me that the richest country in the world…” We are $31,500,000,000,000 + in debt. Like an impetuous child, we continue to demand more from a system which has only prepared to deliver less.


  4. My utilities (electric, cable, cell phone) have separated out all the special taxes placed on my bills. I have stayed at hotels where 1/3 of the bill were taxes and governmental fees. I welcome the breakdown so that I know why one hotel is more expensive than another 25 miles away.

    All those free roads that you drive on is paid for by fuel taxes which isn’t that 9/10th of a cent on the signs. (In NJ it is $0.414 plus the federal rate of $0.184 for a total of $0.598 per gallon.) Every wonder why California has the highest gasoline prices? Because the state collects 68 cent per gallon plus the federal tax.

    So now the question becomes in 2035 when California and New Jersey stop selling ICE cars and the resulting drop in gasoline sales happen, how are they going to pay for the roads? EV cars are heavier and will wear out the roads faster. Are they going to tax you by the mile or put extra taxes on your electric bill that everyone will pay since people are not installing separate meters to charge EVs? The roads are not free.


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