Quote Origin: There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch — TANSTAAFL

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?

Picture of salads from Unsplash

Question for 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?

Reply from 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 presentation of the saying as an important economic maxim occurred in a fable published by journalist Walter Morrow in June 1938.  The saying appeared as the final summary punchline of the fable.

Details are given further below within the following collection of selected citations in chronological order.

In 1886 a poem titled “Somebody Pays” by Josephine Pollard appeared in a Missouri newspaper which acknowledged “The New York Ledger” of New York City. The following verse mentioned free lunches, but it emphasized that somebody must pay for the nominally free items:1

Free lunches, free passes, they have at command,
Rich gifts that to others are lost,
And gayly they feast on the fat of the land,
And travel regardless of cost.
But for all the fine banquets, the wear and the tear
Of public or private displays,
Though you may go free, ’tis as sure as can be
That somebody pays

In 1892 the notable freethinker Robert G. Ingersoll employed the phrase “no free lunch” while discussing differing perceptions of heaven. Ingersoll contended that one must pay to achieve happiness and to enter a hypothetical heaven. This figurative usage was precursor to the modern saying. Emphasis in excerpts added by QI:2

People needn’t expect to go into heaven like little jugs just to be filled up and put on a shelf in one of the parlors of heaven so that they could sort of have a good time. He thought they would have a hard job trying to have a good time with the Trinity.

“If we are to have happiness and a heaven we will have to work and pay for it. There is no free lunch business about getting to heaven.”

In 1898 several newspapers printed a collection of sayings using nonstandard spelling. The statements were presented with exaggerated Swedish accents. Here is one germane saying about free lunch followed by a restatement using conventional spelling:3 4

A free lunch es not very cheap teng after all, ven von consider how many faller get poor eatin’ ’em.

A free lunch is not very cheap thing after all, when one consider how many feller get poor eatin’ ’em.

This adage suggested that partaking of free food did have a price. One may become a saloon habitué facing the dangers of dissipation, indolence, and alcoholism.

Also in 1898 several newspapers printed a miscellaneous set of sayings that included a skeptical remark about “free lunch” that was thematically pertinent. Here were three of the sayings:5 6

Why is it that a free lunch is never free?
Why isn’t the bride well-dressed who is well groomed?
Why shouldn’t a man be excused for being bigoted against bigotry?

In 1909 a short untitled item appeared in “The Washington Herald” of Washington D.C. This citation presented the saying followed by a remark that encapsulated the skeptical economic stance:7

Mr. Tillman’s idea that free lunch is good enough for anybody—or even Presidents—may appear sound to some people, but, as a matter of fact, there is no such thing as free lunch. Somebody has to pay for it.

In 1917 an article in an Oklahoma newspaper with a Chicago dateline included a close match to the statement under study; however, this usage was literal and not figurative:8

Prominent liquor men today gathered here to advocate passage of an ordinance forbidding free lunch in saloons. Michael Montague, one of the delegation, held an opposite view to the others.

“There is no such thing as free lunch,” he said. “First of all, you have to buy something from the saloonkeeper before you can partake of the lunch. Lunch is the greatest tempering influence in the saloon. If a man takes a two-ounce drink of whisky and then takes a bite of lunch, he probably does not take a second drink. Whisky taken alone creates an appetite.”

In 1921 the “San Francisco Chronicle” described a prank in an article that included an instance of the saying, but this usage was also literal not figurative. The saloon institution of the “free lunch” was now passé:9

Somebody with a crippled sense of humor put a piece of lettuce and a pickled sardine in the pocket of W. S. Swannell of Sacramento. It was Swannell’s only traveling suit and was labeled “free lunch.” Swannell said that the person who did it wasn’t a restaurant man because there was no such thing as a free lunch. Hasn’t been for several years. Nickel beer and free lunch left at the same time, he says.

In June 1938 an elaborate fable about a king facing economic troubles titled “Economics in Eight Words” appeared in several newspapers including: “The Evansville Press”10 of Evansville, Indiana; “The Oklahoma News”11 of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; the “El Paso Herald-Post”12 of El Paso, Texas; and “The Cincinnati Post”13 of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Some of these papers did not specify the author of the fable, but the Oklahoma and Cincinnati periodicals both listed Walter Morrow as the author:

Economics in Eight Words

Once upon a time a great and wise king ruled a populous and prosperous land. The width and breadth of his kingdom were measured in thousands of leagues.

But a plague of poverty came upon that land, and no man knew its cause. There were mighty and inconclusive arguments in the halls of government, and learned graybeards in the schools advocated this remedy or that. The king, seeing that his people were starving and distressed in the midst of plenty, called his wisest counsellors from the four quarters of the kingdom.

The king listened to the inconclusive disputations of his advisors and then demanded that they create a “short and simple text” on economics that he could read and understand. This would enable him to save his kingdom.

Unfortunately, the advisors required a year, and the resulting opus was 87 volumes long with 600 pages per volume. The angry king executed half of his economic experts and again ordered the construction of a brief text on the subject. Sadly, the advisors repeatedly failed to perform this task although the document did shorten over time as the number of advisors shrank. Finally, the single surviving economist presented a concise message:

“Speak on,” cried the king, and the palace guards leveled their crossbows. But the old economist rose fearlessly to his feet, stood face to face with the king, and said:

“Sire, in eight words I will reveal to you all the wisdom that I have distilled through all these years from all the writings of all the economists who once practiced their science in your kingdom. Here is my text:

“There ain’t no such thing as free lunch.”

The above instance was the earliest known to QI in which the saying was employed as a general economic maxim.

In November 1938 a reprint of the tale appeared in “Public Service Magazine” of St. Paul, Minnesota. The tale was ascribed to “Walter Morrow in the New York World-Telegram”.14

An article in the “El Paso Herald-Post” stated that Walter Morrow was editor-in-chief of The Southwestern Group of Scripps-Howard Newspapers.15 The “New York World-Telegram”, “El Paso Herald-Post”, and “The Pittsburgh Press” were all Scripps-Howard newspapers in 1938.

In February 1939 a newspaper in Rushville, Indiana reported on a Rotary Club speech delivered by W. F. Loper who was a superintendent in the local public school system. Loper employed a variant with “free meal” instead of “free lunch”:16

In passing, he stated that one thing which can’t be tolerated is too much human misery because it is fertile ground for every ism except Americanism.

Children need to be taught, in addition, that there is no such thing as a free meal, the speaker continued, in order to correct some of the conditions that exist today.

In 1940 Dr. John Madden, Dean of N.Y.U. School of Business, spoke to the graduating class of North Tarrytown High School, and he used the saying:17

“I can’t tell you what the future will bring,” declared Dr. Madden, “but I can tell you that there’s no such thing as ‘free lunch.’ Great results are not accomplished by wishful thinking. Don’t waste your time.

In 1942 an editorial in a Corning, New York newspaper included the adage:18

This much is certain. In all the affairs of life there’s no such thing as free lunch. Everything has to be paid for. What goes up comes down, what we sow we reap.

In 1943 “The Boston Daily Globe” attributed the expression to a Professor of Public Finance at Princeton University named Harley L. Lutz:19

Prof. Lutz of Princeton seems to have a definition of “economics” quite different from that in Washington. He said “Economics can be boiled down to one short sentence, ‘There is no free lunch’.”—Wakefield Item.

In 1946 the “Los Angeles Times” published a modified version of the fable. The 1938 version began with “two thousand and ten” advisors, but the 1946 tale started with eight advisors. The unlucky advisors were dispatched with crossbows in 1938, whereas in 1946 advisors faced decapitation. When one expert was left the king pronounced the following deadline:20

“Within one week—on one page of writing—what are my country’s woes?”

Said the shy survivor: “I don’t need the week, I don’t need a page. Trouble with this country is too many darn fools think there’s some such thing as a free lunch.”

In 1949 an initialism for the maxim appeared as the title of a book called “Tanstaafl: A Plan for a New Economic World Order” by Pierre Dos Utt.21

In June 1949 the long-time “Chicago Tribune” columnist Arch Ward shared the following:22

A Natural Law
“What this country has to realize,” says my Aunt Minnie, “is there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” -Distant Dan.

In August 1949 an interesting reprint of the fable appeared in “The Star” newspaper of Port St. Joe, Florida. The introductory statement credited the tale to Jake Falstaff, the pseudonym of a columnist named Herman Fetzer whose home paper was the “Cleveland Press” in Ohio:23


(Ed Note: The following editorial is based on a story by the late Jack Falstaff which appeared 11 years ago in the Cleveland Press. We think the story sizes up the situation concisely.)

Once upon a time a great and wise king ruled a populous and prosperous land. But a plague of poverty came upon the land, and no man knew its cause.

The “Cleveland Press” was a Scripps-Howard newspaper, and as noted previously the fable appeared in multiple newspapers in that chain in 1938. In addition, both Morrow and Fetzer worked for that chain. However, only Morrow was credited back in June 1938. Thus, the evidence supporting Fetzer is weak. Future researchers may learn more.

In June 1950 “The Boston Daily Globe” printed another version of the fable. This gentler tale contained obtuse advisers who experienced banishment instead of execution. The last advisor offered the classic advice using nine words instead of eight:24

“In fear and trembling, the one remaining economist quavered ‘Your Majesty. I have reduced this subject of economics to a single sentence. In nine words is distilled all the wisdom of the economists who once practiced in your realm. Here it is—

“‘There is no such a thing as a free lunch.'”

Also, in June 1950 the “Chicago Daily Tribune” printed an anecdote about Leonard P. Ayres, an economist and military officer who had died in 1946. A youthful acquaintance asked Ayres to share a piece of wisdom, and he voiced a variant saying using “free meal” instead of “free lunch”:25

After a moment’s reflection Ayres said, “I have formed opinions about a number of matters of which I feel reasonably confident. There is one about which I feel absolutely certain: There is no such thing as a free meal.”

In November 1950 “The New York Times” published a different anecdote about Leonard P. Ayres which employed a birthday party setting:26

After the main festivities had ended, a group of reporters approached the general with the request that perhaps he might give them one of several immutable economic truisms which he had gathered from his long years of economic study.

The general thought for some few minutes and then allowed that, while he didn’t know any great number of economic truisms which he could repeat, he did know one which he felt had passed the test of time. “It is an immutable economic fact,” said the general, “that there is no such thing as a free lunch.”

In 1966 Robert Heinlein published “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress”; the narrator was a rebellious moon colonist named Manuel Garcia O’Kelly, nicknamed Mannie. He explained the meaning of the initialism and dispensed economic advice:27

“Oh, ‘tanstaafl.’ Means ‘There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.’ And isn’t,” I added, pointing to a FREE LUNCH sign across room, “or these drinks would cost half as much. Was reminding her that anything free costs twice as much in long run or turns out worthless.”

“An interesting philosophy.”

“Not philosophy, fact. One way or other, what you get, you pay for.”

In 1969 a columnist in the “Boston Herald Traveler” of Massachusetts attributed the saying to the economist Milton Friedman:28

Prof. Friedman once wrote that the one big truth in economics is that there is no such thing as a free lunch. We read somewhere recently that three per cent or less of the American people have ever taken as much as one course in economics.

In 1975 Milton Friedman published the collection “There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch: Essays on Public Policy” which printed the maxim on its back cover:29

Professor Friedman’s famous aphorism, There’s no such thing as a free lunch, is a summary of his economic views, and is quoted endlessly by a growing band of Friedmanites.

In conclusion, this economic adage evolved from literal instances of the saying that were applied to the “free lunch” service provided by saloons in the nineteenth century. In 1909 a short article without a byline stated “as a matter of fact, there is no such thing as free lunch. Somebody has to pay for it”. The economic maxim was popularized by a fable that appeared in June 1938. Evidence indicates that the creator of the fable was Walter Morrow of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain.

Image Notes: Picture of salads from Luisa Brimble Unsplash. The image has been cropped and resized.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Jake Bundy whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and re-activate this exploration. Special thanks to Fred Shapiro who located the 1938 “El Paso Herald-Post” article and shared the citation in the “Yale Alumni Magazine” back in 2009. Shapiro also performed other valuable pioneering work on this topic. Many thanks to Barry Popik and the volunteer researchers at Wikipedia and Wikiquote. Additional, thanks to Charles Doyle for accessing the “Public Service Magazine”. Thanks to the American Dialect Society discussion participants, e.g., Bonnie Taylor-Blake, Dan Goncharoff, and Jonathan Lighter. Thanks to Peter Reitan who found the poem in the December 1886 citation and the saying in the November 1909 citation. Thanks to Mike Christie who told QI about the June 1938 citation in “The Cincinnati Post” which indicated that Walter Morrow was the author of the fable. Thanks to Bill Barrow and Dave Jarvis who explored the attribution of the fable to Jake Falstaff, pseudonym for Herman Fetzer.

Update History: On February 23, 2024 citations dated December 4, 1886; November 2, 1909; and June 28, 1938 were added to the article. Also, the article was partially rewritten. In addition, some redundant citations were deleted. Further, the format of the bibliographical notes was updated.

  1. 1886 December 4, Centralia Fireside Guard, Poem: Somebody Pays, Acknowledgement to Josephine Pollard in New York Ledger, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Centralia, Missouri. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  2. 1892 October 31, The Chicago Daily Tribune, Myth and Miracle: Col. Ingersoll Draws a Line Between Them, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  3. 1898 April 4, The Nebraska State Journal, Swedish Philosophy, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  4. 1898 July 7, The Holton Recorder (The Recorder-Tribune), Our Swedish Philosopher, Quote Page 2, Column 5, Holton, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  5. 1898 October 22, Trenton Evening Times, Why?, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Trenton, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  6. 1898 October 23, The Nebraska State Journal, Why?, Quote Page 12, Column 6, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers.com) ↩︎
  7. 1909 November 2, The Washington Herald, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 2, Washington, District of Columbia. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  8. 1917 May 25, Oklahoma City Times, Saloonman Denies Lunches Provided Patrons Are Free, Quote Page 1, Column 5, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  9. 1921 October 12, San Francisco Chronicle, Restaurateurs Find Live Wire Hosts On Job, Quote Page 3, Column 5, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  10. 1938 June 25, The Evansville Press, Economics in Eight Words (Author not specified), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Evansville, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  11. 1938 June 26, The Oklahoma News, Section: Magazine, Economics in Eight Words by Walter Morrow, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  12. 1938 June 27, El Paso Herald-Post, Economics in Eight Words (Author not specified), Quote Page 4, Column 1, El Paso, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩︎
  13. 1938 June 28, The Cincinnati Post, Economics in Eight Words by Walter Morrow, Quote Page 6, Column 1 to 4, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  14. 1938 November, Public Service Magazine, Volume 65, Number 5, Economics in Eight Words by Walter Morrow in the New York World-Telegram, Start Page 220, Quote Page 220, Published by Harvey J. Gonden, St. Paul, Minnesota, (Verified with scans; thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia library system) ↩︎
  15. 1937 September 7, El Paso Herald-Post, Morrow Appointed Scripps-Howard’s Southwest Editor (Continuation title: Morrow Named Southwestern Group Editor), Start Page 1, Quote Page 5, Column 2, El Paso, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  16. 1939 February 14, Rushville Republican, Shelby School Official Gives Talk at Rotary, Start Page 1, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Rushville, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  17. 1940 June 25, The Daily News (Tarrytown Daily News), Warning to Guard Against Enemies Within Sounded, Quote Page 5, Column 3, Tarrytown. New York. (Old Fulton) ↩︎
  18. 1942 April 8, The Evening Leader, Pennies from Heaven, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Corning, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩︎
  19. 1943 June 10, The Daily Boston Globe, But There Are Lots of Suckers, Quote Page 27, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  20. 1946 April 28, Los Angeles Times, The King’s Economists (Acknowledgment The Toronto Financial Post), Quote Page A4, Column 4 and 5, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  21. 1949, Tanstaafl: A Plan for a New Economic World Order by Pierre Dos Utt, Cairo Publications, Canton, Ohio. (Data from WorldCat Entry at worldcat.org) link ↩︎
  22. 1949 June 20, Chicago Daily Tribune, In the WAKE of the NEWS by Arch Ward, Quote Page C1, Column 2, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  23. 1949 August 26, The Star, Economics in Eight Words, Quote Page 4, Column 1 and 2, Port St. Joe, Florida. (Verified with scans; accessed George A. Smathers Libraries of University of Florida at ufdc.ufl.edu on August 26, 2016) link ↩︎
  24. 1950 June 24, Daily Boston Globe, Globe Man’s Daily Story, Quote Page 10, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  25. 1950 June 24, Chicago Daily Tribune, Savant Said: a Free Meal Doesn’t Exist by Thomas Furlong, Quote Page B5, Column 6, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  26. 1950 November 12, New York Times, Along the Highways and Byways of Finance by Robert H. Fetridge, Quote Page F3, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  27. 1987 (Copyright 1966), The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein, Quote Page 129, Published Ace Books, New York. (Verified with scans in 1987 edition; not yet verified in 1966 edition) ↩︎
  28. 1969 October 10, Boston Herald Traveler, The Investor by Edson B. Smith, Article Section Title: No Such Thing as ‘Free Lunch’, Quote Page 26, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩︎
  29. 1975, There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch: Essays on Public Policy by Milton Friedman, Quote in book title, Quote also in back page excerpt, Open Court, LaSalle, Illinois. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
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