When I was in college at a midwestern university famous for its right-wing economists, the coffee shop in my dorm was called T.A.N.S.T.A.F.L., which stood for “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.” It was a quotation from Milton Friedman, who I suppose used it to mean that someone–the owners of capital–are the ones paying for what workers, mothers of dependent children, Chilean miners, or whomever are merely taking, as if it were “free.”
Of course, there isn’t any such thing as a free lunch, but it’s not because someone else is paying for it. It’s because someone is working for it. But that’s not what Friedman meant, and it’s not what critics of tuition-free college mean when they dismiss “free college” as a pipe dream. The derisive use of “free” in the TANSTAFL libertarian sense has experienced a revival, especially around the issue of tuition-free, publicly-funded higher education, or to its critics, “free college.”
As in the case of the Friedman aphorism, “free college” is often invoked with an air of world-weary condescension, as if the adult speaker is patiently explaining to someone else’s child why, although they really, really wish he could, he simply cannot have a pony.
Sara Goldrick-Rab shared this excellent example on Twitter.
Sandy Baum: “Its not realistic to say we’re going to pay people to go to college [for free]. Someone has to pay.” https://t.co/vikvcb7KNh
— Beth Akers (@BethAkers_) August 2, 2016
To which she replied:
“It’s not realistic to pay people to go to high school for free. Someone has to pay.” Baum circa 1850. https://t.co/JmT8SkSakX
— SGR (@saragoldrickrab) August 2, 2016
Her comment points out the arbitrariness of Sandy Baum’s insistence that publicly-funded college is among all public services singularly impossible and unthinkable. It also points out the non-sequitur of the whole argument–no one ever said “free” high school or playgrounds were free, either. My sense is that this kind of dismissal is often a combination of class prejudice, politics, and narrow-mindedness. It comes out of a conviction that college should remain an elite preserve, with a sticker price to ensure it, plus an obliviousness to the normalcy, within recent memory, of tuition-free (or nearly so) college in the United States, to say nothing of the rest of the world.
Most critics of Bernie Sanders’ tuition-free public college program were also just opportunistic political supporters of his rival in the Democratic primaries; there’s no need to review the terrible arguments that subsidized SUNY tuition would be a giveaway to Tiffany Trump. (She should have to buy a ticket to Central Park, though.)
Here is another example, a paywalled article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that explains “How Clinton’s ‘Free College’ Could Cause a Cascade of Problems” (a veritable cascade! I bet you haven’t even thought about all the problems.) Reason is, of course, opposed to it, arguing in the face of common sense and all evidence that “government subsidies have hidden the price of college and broken the market forces that would naturally keep tuition costs down.”
An op-ed writer in the Delaware News-Journal does a point-by-point debunking of what he calls the “myths of free college,” tipping his hand by quoting such scholars as William Bennett and Kevin Carey without ever addressing the core issues that the Sanders campaign first raised–federal and private profiteering on student loan debt and the decline of federal and state aid for education.
“Free college” is a moralistic ruse, in other words, used to smuggle in a market logic where it has no place without addressing the core question of exploitative, exorbitant college costs. It treats education like anything else you’d buy in a store, and scolds those who feel otherwise by pretending they want to get something without working for it. There ain’t so such thing as a free lunch, of course: students and the public have amply paid for it already. They’re just not eating.
Luckily, most Americans seem to understand this: a recent survey shows that two-thirds (and one-third of registered Republicans) think “tuition at public colleges and universities should be free for anyone who wants to attend.”