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Why Can't Everything be Free?

Imagine a world where everything is free. You still have to work, of course; things would still need to be made, crops would have to be grown, and someone would need to run the power, water, and sewer plants. Jobs would be assigned according to your talents and to be fair, pretty much everyone would work an eight hour day plus an hour lunch, five days a week (some people's five days would vary from others to cover the weekends).

There would be no paychecks because everything is free. Therefore, there wouldn't need to be any banks, financial institutions, insurance companies, or even a stock market. Clothing, food, furniture, appliances, cars, homes, health care; everything is free.

You would never covet what your neighbor has because you can have the same car, house, 72" flat screen TV, and swimming pool. There would be no need to keep up with the Jones's because we could all have the same items.

Sounds pretty ideal, doesn't it? If you think about it, the plan might actually work. Everyone contributes and everyone benefits equally. Unfortunately, there's one small problem; the proverbial chink in the armor that is human nature.

That three bedroom ranch house wouldn't be good enough - if they were free, we'd all want mansions with indoor and outdoor swimming pools. Every time something breaks, instead of having it fixed, we would likely just throw it away because we can get a new one for free. Does the roof leak - let's just move to a brand new house - they're free after all. No need to take anything with us as we can get all new furniture, appliances, clothing, for free. Washing machine on the fritz - throw it out and get a new one - they're free. Car need a tune-up or new tires - why bother - get a new one; they're free. On and on it goes. We would become an even more disposable society than we are today. And where would we find the space required to put all this discarded stuff?

Some might argue that it wouldn't be like that. People will fix their roof or their washing machine or their car. Why wouldn't they? Those items are practically new; and wouldn't it keep some people employed doing the repair work? Remember, just because things are free, doesn't mean we don't have to work.

Those that make this kind of argument may be right. Some of us would be good stewards and fix things instead of tossing them out at the first sign of a problem - at least for a generation or two. However, look at where society is today versus where we were several decades ago.

Adults saw their parents struggle and work hard to provide a better life for them. In turn, these new parents both work in an effort to spare their children from enduring any hardships. However, by giving children everything they ask for without teaching them how to earn and appreciate things, they are doing their children a great disservice. We're seldom satisfied with what we have when we've earned it and even less so when it's been given to us without our having to work for it.

Do people ever really believe that they make just the right amount of money; even after that most recent raise/promotion? What is too much? Why do the rich strive to become richer? Isn't $1 million enough or $5 million? Do professional sports stars really need $20 million per year, or talented actors $20 million per film, while others pick food out of trash bins? What happens when you go to work and do your job well but see others not trying quite as hard. Or find out a co-worker makes more money than we do and hey, we do the same amount of work so why aren't we paid equally? There will always be some who feel entitled without having to give back in a meaningful way. Eventually, you will become discouraged watching these people slack off while still getting all the "free" things you do, and if you're not careful, you will fall into their habits, causing the whole world to slowly grind to a halt. I've observed this behavior, as well, and I left those environments before I could get sucked into that void of mediocrity.

Whenever we get something bigger or better whether it's a raise, a house, a TV, or a car, eventually we want more. We not only want more because what we have is broken or inefficient; we want more because something newer and fancier with more gadgets and widgets just came out and it's shiny and new and we really, really want it. How many times have you heard a child ask for something because "all of my friends have one"? I would venture that the majority of people in the developed world live by want more than need.

When things are gratis, people take more than they need. How many folks can pass up free things at garage sales? I've put up signs on the free box saying "One per customer" but that has never stopped some people from taking three or four items. Have you seen some of the lines at the store when they're offering free samples? Raise your hand if you've gone through the line more than once if it was something you really liked, never giving a thought to the person who won't get a sample because too many people had more than one.

I've been able to observe what "free" does to people when the company I worked for sponsored an afternoon movie for employees and their families. Free admittance to the theatre, free soda and popcorn, not just for the employee, but their family as well - it was a very generous offer. However, it wasn't quite generous enough for some people.

What I saw at this event wasn't people taking only their fair share; they took all they could get their hands on. They ordered giant sized popcorn to go with their half-gallon soda and nearly cleaned out the small theatre of boxed candy which wasn't even supposed to be part of the event. To go with that bucket of popcorn they had to have a handful of boxes of candy as well, even sending the kids back for more if they didn't like the first ones.

I observed this all while sitting with my child sized popcorn and medium drink. I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little bit jealous. Maybe I should have opted for a larger popcorn (I still wouldn't have taken a larger drink - I didn't want to have to leave in the middle of the movie to visit the restroom, after all). Could I still go and get some of the free candy that my interpretation of the memo wasn't supposed to be included?

It wasn't until I was on the way out, passing so many tubs of popcorn still three-quarters full sitting on the floor, waiting to be swept into the trash with the discarded half-eaten candy boxes, that I realized I had done the right thing by only asking for what I could reasonably eat without wasting, and not abusing the privilege by taking items that were not part of the offering. People squander things when they're free, because they can. Granted, not everyone went to the extreme of gluttony but enough people did to make me believe society could never survive in a world where everything was free. As tempting as it would be to make everything equal for all, unfortunately, we just can't escape human nature.

Written 4/2010, Posted 6/2011

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