free lunch

Despite the claims of rabid science fiction fans, the phrase there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch began its life as a joke that was commonly told by economists in the first half of the 20th century.

The joke goes that one day a king assembled his advisors and asked them to summarize the essence of economics wisdom. One by one, the advisors delivered lengthy treatises on the subject. Angry that they weren’t doing what he had asked, the king had them executed. When it came to his turn one wise advisor, realizing what was happening, summed up all of economics wisdom in there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, pleasing the king and sparing his life.

The joke and the phrase are recounted in a 1 June 1949 San Francisco News editorial by journalist William Morrow. The 1949 editorial claims that it is a reprint of a 1938 editorial, but the original has never been found.1 If the earlier version of the editorial ever turns up, it would be the oldest use of the phrase in any form.

The joke is making reference to the literal use of the term free lunch by bars and drinking establishments which would offer “free” meals to attract clientele. The savings is illusory as the price of the drinks subsidizes the food. Literal use of the term free lunch appears in print as early as 4 July 1848 in an ad in the New York Herald:

EADIE’S COFFEE HOUSE, 196 FULTON STREET,—GEORGE EADIE respectfully intimates that having fitted up the above establishment, he will be happy to see his friends on the 4th of July.  Steaks, Chops, and Scotch Mutton and Veal Pies, always on hand.  Brandies, Wines, and Liquors, of the first quality. Free Lunch at 11, A.M.2

And the following appears in the Mansfield News (Ohio) on 20 December 1900, extending the meaning of free lunch into the metaphorical, in this case to newspaper subscriptions:

Good morning!
Have you subscribed?
This is no free lunch.
Our terms are cash in advance.3

A column by Paul Mallon in the Reno Evening Gazette (Nevada) of 22 January 1942, opines on Vice President Henry Wallace’s plan to provide post-war aid to developing nations. The article shows the transition from the literal bar-room free lunches to the metaphorical use:

He even says the United States has made a start toward his world goal by the food-stamp plan, the cotton-stamp plan, the homemade government mattresses program, and free lunch in schools.
Mr. Wallace neglects the fact that such a thing as a “free lunch” never existed. Until man acquires the power of creation, someone will always have to pay for a free lunch. In the old barrooms the consumer paid for it in the price of his beer. In the schools today, the taxpayers of this country are paying for the free lunches.4

The phrase is popularly associated with economist Milton Friedman who published a book titled There’s No Such Thing As A Free Lunch in 1975. But Friedman never claimed to have originated the phrase. Instead, he too is referencing the joke in his title.

The science fiction fans come into the picture in 1966 with the publication of Robert Heinlein’s novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which used the phrase and its acronym, tanstaafl, quite liberally. Heinlein did much to popularize the phrase, but as we have seen he did not coin it.

Some claim that he coined the acronym, but alas for those science fiction fans even this is not true. Tanstaafl is found as far back as 1949, only a few months after the earliest known appearance of the full phrase. From the 3 October 1949 Bradford Era (Bradford, PA):

Now, our secret: Tanstaaffl [sic] is mnemonic for “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”5

The article is a review of Pierre Dos Utt’s 1949 book, Tanstaafl: A Plan for a New Economic World Order. So the acronym and phrase are both recorded from about the same time.


1Fred R. Shapiro, editor, The Yale Book of Quotations (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 540.

2Barry Popik, Free Lunch. 8 March 2007, accessed 12 Jan 2009 <http://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/free_lunch/>.

3”Items From Bryan’s Commoner,” Mansfield News (Mansfield, Ohio), 20 December 1900, 4.

4Paul Mallon, “News Behind the News,” Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada), 22 January 1942, 4.

5”’Tanstaafl’ Contains Masterly Plan of Author,” The Bradford Era (Bradford, PA), 3 October 1949, 6.

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