Tag Archives: Robert G. Ingersoll

There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Milton Friedman? Robert Heinlein? Robert G. Ingersoll? Michael Montague? Walter Morrow? John Madden? Harley L. Lutz? Pierre Dos Utt? Leonard P. Ayres? Jake Falstaff? Herman Fetzer? Anonymous?

nofreelunch10Dear Quote Investigator: Today many goods and services are available for free especially via the internet. However, the true cost is usually not zero. Subsidies, indirect costs, and displaced costs are sometimes difficult to fully discern. A well-known acerbic economic adage reflects a skeptical attitude:

There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

This phrase is sometimes presented as an initialism: tanstaafl. The prominent economist Milton Friedman and the famous science fiction author Robert Heinlein both employed this expression, but I do not believe that either one coined it. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: During the nineteenth and early twentieth century many saloons in the United States offered a midday buffet selection of gratis food to customers who purchased at least one drink. The saloonkeepers hoped to increase the number of clients and the amount of alcohol purchased. The “free lunch” food functioned as a loss leader.

Robert Heinlein did use the expression under investigation in his 1966 novel “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress”. Also, Milton Friedman was credited with the saying by 1969, and he used an instance as the title of a book in 1975. But the saying was already in circulation.

The earliest known instance that matched the modern economic sense appeared as the punchline of a fable published in June 1938. Journalist Walter Morrow is currently the leading candidate for creator of this fable. Details are given further below within the following collection of selected citations in chronological order.

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Nearly All Men Can Stand Adversity, But If You Want To Test a Man’s Character, Give Him Power

Abraham Lincoln? Thomas Carlyle? Robert G. Ingersoll? Horatio Alger Jr.? Apocryphal?

lincoln07Dear Quote Investigator: I saw the following quotation on the website of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum:

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.

Lincoln was credited, but I have seen skepticism expressed on other websites. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that this statement was spoken or written by Abraham Lincoln. The famous orator and free thinker Robert G. Ingersoll employed similar phrases when he was describing Lincoln. QI conjectures that this was the primary nexus of confusion: something that was said about Lincoln was transformed into something that was said by Lincoln.

The overall history and evolution of the saying is long and complex. Part of the semantics can be traced back to a remark by Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle in 1841. An exact match for the modern instance with an ascription to Lincoln appeared by 1931.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

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