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A rule of life: If it’s “free”, it’s probably very expensive

People everywhere love freebies. If it’s “free,” we want it. And we want lots of it.

Here’s the thing, though: nothing is really free. Resources are limited. To provide or make anything on this planet consumes resources. So if something seems free, it’s up to you to work out who’s bearing the cost.

Some simple examples. When a shop tells you to “buy two, get one free” the third item is not really free at all; all three items are being offloaded at a discount. And this is not a wonderful act of charity by the retailer; he is merely disposing of dead (and often sub-standard) stock.

Kenyan politicians are known to offer “free” t-shirts and handouts in exchange for votes. Was the t-shirt free? Not at all. In exchange, you received a leader who buys votes; who has paid heavily for shirts, caps, cars, stooges and helicopters; and who will most likely recoup this investment by aiming to plunder taxpayers’ funds at the first opportunity. That is what the t-shirt cost you: your children’s development retarded in future.

In Kenya we have “free” primary education. Or do we? What is “free” about billions of shillings intended for the awakening of little minds going “missing” and no one raising a finger in response? What is “free” about schools where parents have to contribute a kitty to pay teachers’ salaries, or where children have to come early to clean the school first?

Driving in Kenya is “free.” Well, not quite, as you do have to pay for your vehicle and the costs of fueling and maintaining it. But a big part of the cost of driving is free – the cost that driving imposes on society in the form of congestion and pollution. That is not charged to any individual, but someone pays. You guessed it – that someone is everyone. We all pay because when something is not priced it is over-consumed. Vehicles of all description pile onto roads that can’t take them, simply because the roads are “free.” The cost comes in time wasted and health lost.

In business, in economics, in life in general: what is touted as “free” ends up being very expensive indeed. It only gives the illusion of being free of cost. But someone is footing the bill, and usually that someone is you. You will pay in one way or another: in the form of higher future taxes; in pain and inconvenience; in shoddy quality; in stress and health problems; in failing to receive better offerings because you took the “free” ones instead; in the loss of your privacy; in being bombarded by adverts you don’t have the slightest interest in.

If you want value and utility you have to pay for them. Quality products cost money, so no one gives those out for free. Quality people cost money, so they can’t be procured with peanuts. What goes in is what comes out. If you are being offered something for free, think hard about what you are getting, and who will really pay for it.

There is, of course, something called altruism: selfless concern for the wellbeing of others. Some people do indeed do things for others and bear the full cost of doing so. But this is a rarer phenomenon than you might think, and it pays to be circumspect. When dealing with politicians, policymakers and business folk, be very suspicious of the thing they are giving you if they say it’s free of charge.

At a personal level, always being on the lookout out for things we don’t want to pay for is a dangerous strategy. It turns us into mendicants who are always ready for the freebie, the lottery, the pyramid scheme. It harms our psyche and our self-esteem. Far better to realize that there is a price to pay for anything that’s worth having, and being willing to work and save to pay that price.

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