Why Not Free! Free! Free!
I woke up this morning and everything was free.
All goods and services… completely free. It had to be true because when the clock radio came on, even NPR was giving away tote bags without begging for donations.
I rolled over in bed, happily mulling a list of things I want – and could get – without paying for them! A Learjet… A 1955 Mercedes 300SL Gullwing coupe… in silver… with the black and white plaid racing seats.
Come to think of it, I could send all the kids to Harvard. If everything’s free then, presumably, perfect SAT scores are free, too…
And, best of all, with no need for a paycheck, I could take the day off.
I got up whistling a merry tune, pulling on my pants and thinking, “Soon these trousers will be the bottom half of a bespoke Savile Row suit.”
Over a leisurely breakfast I pondered the question, “What armload of the earth’s priceless bounty (now literally priceless) should I gather unto my bosom?”
Fortunately, our family is pretty well-off. There isn’t anything we desperately need. No expensive operation for crippled little Timmy or anything like that. And none of our kids are named Timmy anyway.
We live out in rural New England. Like most country folks, we’re well provisioned this time of year. Our pig has been slaughtered and is in the freezer along with half a beef cow from the farmer down the road (and a whole bunch of frozen pizzas just in case we get down to tongue, tripe, and pig’s feet).
The wood is stacked. The furnace oil has been topped up. Cars, truck, and tractor are in running order. Old fridge in the basement is stocked with beer. Got jerry cans of diesel for the generator. If the neighbors use so much free electricity that the kilowatts coming out of our wall sockets slow to a trickle, no problem.
I could take my time deciding what no-cost, complimentary, on-the-house stuff I should go out and get first.
Funny how old habits die hard. My immediate thought was “money.” (I forgot it was of no further use.) And I drove to the bank in town to get a couple of trash bags full.
Guess the bank tellers forgot, too. They’d taken it all and left the bank vault open and the safety deposit drawers pulled out… nothing but bearer bonds and stock certificates littering the floor.
No use for those anymore, although Berkshire Hathaway did look attractive at $0 per share. Of course, it will never pay a dividend again. (Not that it ever did.)
As long as in was I town, might as well pick up some groceries, gratis. Seems like a lot of people had the same thought. And they weren’t returning their grocery carts to the cart rack or parking between the lines. In fact, somebody had backed his pickup truck through the automatic doors and was throwing cases of Samuel Adams Boston Lager into the pickup bed. He probably should have stuck to Bud in cans because the Sam Adams bottles were bursting all over the place. It was a mess.
It was a worse mess inside the grocery store. Squealing children, faces smeared with chocolate, swarming the candy aisle. Housewives rooting though the produce bins, tossing bruised fruits and wilted vegetables over their shoulders. Grown men running and blocking and tackling each other: T-bone steaks were the football and the meat cooler was the line of scrimmage.
All I wanted was a little cheese – a wheel of Stilton, fat wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano, large Brie de Melun, ten pounds or so each of Roquefort, Gruyère, Gorgonzola, Mozzarella di Bufala, Camembert de Normandie, and Moliterno black truffle Pecorino. You know, the kind of stuff that makes the snack tray look special. We already had saltines at home.
But I never got to the deli counter. Some old folks had commandeered the shuttle from the local retirement community. (Gosh, they were spry.) There was a pink-haired lady in a walker swinging a kielbasa. She would have been batting .400 for the Astros if she was playing Major League Baseball.
Things were every bit as bad at the gas station. Tug-of-war with the pump hoses. People using the fuel nozzles like nunchucks. Then somebody started squirting high-test at other folks because they were trying to pull him away from his boat trailer where he was filling the 130-gallon fuel tank on his Bertram 24 Sport Fisherman. Good thing nobody smokes anymore.
Well, almost nobody.
Let’s not even talk about what was going on at the liquor store… though I did manage to get away with a couple of bottles of 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape. (The locals thought 2010 was the sell-by date.)
Everywhere I looked in this heretofore peaceful, sleepy little town there was – as that gloomy old political philosopher Thomas Hobbes called it – a “war of all against all.”
It made me think… Communist countries are based on the idea that everything is free. In the Communist Manifesto Karl Marx says, “The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”
No wonder communist countries are brutal dictatorships. It would take a lot of totalitarianism and secret police and gulags and so on to control that old lady clubbing me with a kielbasa. Gives you sympathy for Kim Jong-un.
I decided to go home.
(This is the part of a polemical narrative where I need to make a speech, like the speech of copper baron Francisco d’Anconia in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged about money being the root of all virtue.
Ideally the writer works such speeches in as part of a dialogue. But the other person in the dialogue – in my case, my wife – doesn’t get to say much. In Atlas Shrugged, Francisco goes on for five pages in response to a snide remark by hateful anti-capitalism journalist Bertram Scudder. I shall try to contain myself.)
“Oh my gosh, what happened to you?!” asked my wife.
“Money is the root of all virtue,” I replied. “Goods and services shouldn’t be completely free. For years now we have been treating goods and services as if they were de facto free. It was only a matter of time before we made them free de jure.
“It started in the 1920s,” I said, “with easy access to consumer credit on the installment plan – ‘Buy Now, Pay Later.’ This didn’t make goods and service free of course, but it made goods and service seem free.
“Customers no longer had to save up money to pay for what they wanted with cold, hard cash. (Which even paper money was in those days, being backed with gold and silver.)
“My Dear,” I went on to say, “that was just the beginning of a long-term trend – I would even call it a plot – to separate the desire to purchase from the duty to pay.
“By the 1930s, individual stores were issuing charge plates so that wives could buy finery one month and not let husbands find out until the following month…”
“Ahem,” my wife interrupted, “I’m the one who balances the checkbook around here…”
“In 1950,” I continued without pausing, “Diners Club introduced a general use ‘credit card’ that allowed cash-free purchases at restaurants and a wide variety of other commercial establishments. In 1958 the American Express Card promoted this ‘un-pay’ concept worldwide.
“Our own children have no idea what things cost or how the cost is met. Our children will say, ‘Sorry I sat down on the glass-top coffee table and my butt busted it to pieces. But you can just go on Amazon and get another one.’
“Now people can simply tap their iPhones to go into debt. Debt, incidentally, that the events of this very day have shown will never be paid. What is the world coming to?”
“Well,” said my wife, “If you’d ‘come to’ a little earlier this morning we could have gotten a free washer and dryer.”
Free Goods and Services was the lead story on all the television news channels. The whole country was going crazy just like my little town… except in the big cities, where everybody is crazy anyway and things were much worse.
Niketown on 57th Street in Manhattan had run out of the new $230 Nike Air Foamposite Pro model. A mob was trying to hang store clerks from the fire sprinklers with shoestrings. But a lot of Nike shoes use hook-and-loop fasteners, and it’s hard to lynch a person with Velcro.
I had to hand it to the TV newscasters, staying on the air for free. Some people would rather be a big cheese on the TV screen than have anything else. But I noticed the TV stars were operating the cameras and the microphone booms themselves. Not everybody is stupid enough to rather be famous than rich.
And forget that Learjet I wanted. I saw on television that all the pilots have flown everything that can fly away to where you can still get a price for an airplane – mostly drug-smuggling countries, where I understand the free market is still operating as usual.
By afternoon I was tired of the news and went down to my henhouse. The eggs there have always been free. Free, that is, if you don’t count the feed, poultry waterers, egg crates, two-by-fours and chicken wire to build the coop, and the four days a year it takes to shovel the chicken shit out.
But my eggs were gone. So were my chickens.
That’s when I heard the noise in my hayfield… I drove my truck up there to see my 30 acres of timothy and clover had been smashed flat by RVs, camper vehicles, and travel trailers. (I admit, there is a spectacular mountain view from that spot.) Glad I got the hay before everybody moved in.
Some of my uninvited guests were chopping my trees for firewood. Some were hauling drinking water out of my trout stream, while others were emptying their RV waste tanks into the brook upstream. And some familiar-looking chickens were roasting on BBQ grills.
I shouted at the crowd. But they’d been working hard on the bottles of Sam Adams that hadn’t smashed when they were thrown into the pickup at the grocery store, and they were making too much noise for me to make myself heard.
I climbed up on the roof of my truck cab and, at the top of my lungs, cajoled the people to leave. I begged and pleaded with them to leave. I offered to pay them to leave.
“Your money’s no good here!” said one big drunk guy.
And considering that morning’s sudden change in the American economic system, he had a point.
So I went home, got out a key, and opened the one room in my house that’s kept locked. (That said, all the doors and windows will be locked and bolted from now on.) Then I spun the combination on the cabinet safe…
If everything is going to be free, then there has to be a new way of paying for things.
I put 15 rounds in the magazine and slipped it into my Glock 9mm – the Visa Card of the future.