One of the most misused words in the English language is “free,” as in “it’s free.” Whether it’s the free samples of stuff at Costco, or the free pens and refrigerator magnets they give away at your local bank or car dealership, or the free hip replacement your mother-in-law just received, we use the term freely, so to speak, without ever considering it’s true meaning.
When we say “it’s free,” what we really mean is that someone else is paying for it—voluntarily or involuntarily. And this is a very important distinction. Because one is morally defensible, while the other is not. One involves a clear violation of private property rights, enshrined in the Seventh Commandment, while the other does not. The Seventh Commandment states, “Thou Shalt Not Steal Thy Neighbor’s Goods.” This is the clearest affirmation of private property rights ever handed down. By The Man Himself. And it’s etched in stone. You can’t take someone else’s things, period. And just because you take something from someone and turn around and give it to someone you believe is deserving doesn’t justify it either. The Seventh Commandment is everything the Good Lord ever had to say about “social justice,”–about what is mine and what is thine.
The free samples of some new pineapple/anchovy salsa being handed out by the nice ladies in latex gloves at Costco are not really free. They are either being paid for by Costco, or the company that makes those dreadful concoctions. So while Costco is erroneously saying, “Try these free samples,” what they really should be saying is, “Try one of these dreadful concoctions that we or the producer are paying for.” The same with the pens and refrigerator magnets at your local bank or car dealership. And the customers are likewise incorrect when they proudly tell their spouses, “These pens were free, Honey.”
So, while the merchants and customers are misusing the word free in these examples, if only because it’s convenient; the actions in both cases are not immoral. Neither action involves breaking the Seventh Commandment nor anyone’s private property rights. Both the salsa and the pens and refrigerator magnets are owned by the parties giving them away. The owners can dispose of them as they wish. But, in any event, they are not free. Someone had to pay for them.
In the case of your mother-in-law’s hip replacement, however, it is neither free nor morally acquired. The new hip wasn’t free; it was clearly paid for by somebody else, in this case the taxpayer. And it was not morally acquired, since it involved a breach of the Seventh Commandment and private property rights. The money to pay for her new hip came out of her neighbor’s pocket, the very party the Seventh Commandment (and the United States Constitution) was designed to protect. The money to pay for the hip was taken from her neighbor by a third party, an intermediary we customarily call the government. Third Party intervention, however, does not legitimize the violation of the Seventh Commandment nor the very private property rights protected by the Seventh Commandment. If a highwayman robs you at gun-point and tells you they are going to give all your money to the needy, it doesn’t make it right. It’s still a violation of that pesky Seventh Commandment.
Both the hip replacement and the act of that thoughtful highwayman involve a breach of the Seventh Commandment and the private property rights protected by the Seventh Commandment. In either case, the ends do not justify the means. Nor is the hip replacement free. But if you ask your mother-in-law how much she had to pay for the hip replacement, she would in all likelihood and without a second thought say, “It was free.” What she really should have said was, “My neighbor paid for it, and they didn’t even ask him for permission.”
So the next time you’re about to casually say, “It’s free,” think again. Because, rightly or wrongly, it really means somebody else is paying for it.
The Artful Dilettante