Against the fantasy of something for nothing

(Beyond my bedroom window: the snow comes down, the pigeons sit askant, at odd angles, one here, another there as if playing with me.)

(The birds, unseen, are singing amid the gently falling snow. Pure sprightly delight.)

We have inherited a misguided public philosophy concerning the desirability of “free things.” The fantasy that, all things being equal, it is better to get something for nothing has sunk deep into our collective way of life.

Look around you, virtually anywhere, and you’ll find this misconception running wild. There is the good deal, the sweat deal, the bargain, credit default swaps, the tragedy of the commons, the unpaid internship, the free sample, the free school, free education, free content on the web… A few days ago, I traced this fantasy back to a more primitive desire to escape mutual dependency by trying to maximize receivings and minimize givings. The background assumption of the “something for nothing” is that a world of scarcity has created a sense of Hobbesian hostility.

Concerning the scene of transaction, it would be no exaggeration to say that the con is the reductio ad absurdum of our insatiable desire for “free things.” Concerning the metaphysical picture of selfhood, the image is that of the “inner citadel,” a being invulnerable to harm, a creature as self-sufficient as god.

One place where you can see this picture of freedom being brought out into the open is in Jaron Lanier’s New York Times Op-ed, “SOPA Boycotts and the False Ideals of the Web” (January 18, 2012). The claim that content wants to be free is not only false; it is not only a fetish that hides the real human relations; it is also, and most certainly, an ideal we end up paying for on the back end.

Enjoy, make snow angels, and have a lovely weekend!

Imagining 2 economic worlds: relative abundance and relative scarcity

Let’s build a naturalistic account of a social order under the conditions, first, of abundance and, next, of scarcity. By a “naturalistic account,” I mean the most formal rendering conceivable of human activity based solely on the simplest principles of human life and on the most threadbare of “lived logics.” Below, points 1-4 are neutral with respect to abundance and scarcity while points 5-9 depict a society of abundance, 10-18 one of scarcity.

1. Human beings are social animals.

2. No human being, young or old, can supply all its basic needs and wants.

3. It follows that human beings are and will always be mutually dependent on each other in order to persist and flourish. (How mutually dependent is, of course, an open question. There would need to be room in this account, which I beg off furnishing in what follows, for the achievement of relative independence.)

4. Insofar as human beings are mutually dependent on each other in order to survive and flourish, their most basic form of engagement would doubtless be giving and receiving. Giving and receiving food, touches, sex, words, things, ideas, and so on.


5. In a society of relative abundance (i.e., a society in which there is at least “just enough” to go around), it is conceivable that a gift economy would arise, with givings and receivings flowing freely among all social beings. An implicit background sense of “trust” or a “friendliness of life” would be the way of the world.

6. Over time, some vague sense of dike (roughly: justice) would doubtless emerge: i.e., some basic understanding of giving enough to each.

7. One could imagine simple gestures and verbal utterances becoming codified as concepts. An “invitation” (extended hand, open arms, etc.) would be the word for drawing someone closer in order to give him his due. “Gratitude” (exhalation, a gathering forth embrace, etc.) would be the word for acknowledging that one has received what is proper or mete, i.e., an acknowledgement that one’s basic needs and desires have been met. And “praise” would be a third party’s way of expressing that the givings and receivings have been properly performed by P and Q, i.e., performed in the right manner by both.

8. Now, during lean periods (droughts, famines, etc.), one would expect to see certain vaguely understood but embodied virtues or excellences (arete) that would conjointly serve to keep the social order intact. “Courage” would mean holding onto what lies before one and/or letting go of what was unnecessary. “Temperance” would mean not taking too much for oneself or one’s own, possibly going without for a spell. “Judgment” (phronesis) would involve knowing when to give what to whom and when to receive what from whom.

9. After a lean period was over, social beings dwelling together in this form of life would “celebrate” by giving out more than is due to each and all, by spilling forth an excess onto the earth, and by offering up an excess to the sky. All this would be done in order to restore the “friendliness of life,” the basic comportment of man toward nature. “Celebration” would be a goodly naive form of self-forgetting. Otherwise, a hostility of man toward man or man toward nature would set in and destroy the order. (I.e., the aim of the celebration would be to “make amends” by negating the possibility that a society of scarcity could emerge.)


10. In a society of relative scarcity (i.e., a society in which there is not enough to go around), however, the harmony of givings and receivings would break down. Here, one would see distrust of man toward man, here hostility of man toward nature. How would the social order break down?

11. P might devise a means for getting more than Q, R, S (etc.) receives. (acquisitiveness)

12. P might devise a strategy for getting more than Q offers by Q’s assenting to give P more than Q gets. (master and slave)

13. P might learn to give nothing but expect Q, R, S (etc.) to give everything. (free riding)

14. P might learn how to receive more than P needs and then hold onto things. (private property)

15. P might dream of getting as much as possible and of giving as little as possible. (the con, the bargain, the really sweet deal)

16. P might devise a means of getting, holding onto, and then passing onto persons of P’s choosing. (a will)

17. P might learn how to get now by saying that P will give later (credit).

18. P might learn how to give some to Q now on the condition that Q be willing to give more to P later (debt).

“Unjust” could be the concept we apply to points 10-18, where “unjust” simply meant that givings and receivings were out of order. For points 10-18 imply that P, seeing a world in which there isn’t enough to go around and fearing lest his needs and desires should go unfulfilled, recoils and overcompensates by devising strategies P can use for getting his own or more than his own without full regard for Q, R, S, etc. P has learned to be wily.


Suppose we roll back the clock and envision a world of relative abundance akin to the one visible in points 5-9, a world of “just enough” in which a story unfolds following from 1-9. What might we imagine? What kinds of givings and receivings would then be possible? Perhaps that world could still be ours.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Our Arquebus Moment”