1. Interpretation: Literally this saying seems to be implying that everything has a cost. For many things that cost is money, but, even for things that are supposedly free, some effort is usually required to obtain them. For example, if you find money lying by the side of the road you must still expend some effort to pick it up, and so the money wasn’t really free.
Evaluation: Certainly this is true in most cases. But it is not universally true. For example, you could be sitting in your home when someone comes in unannounced and literally drops something free in your lap. Or a computer error may add money you in no way earned to your account. In both cases not even a nominal effort is required. A second problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t seem to teach us anything. What would it matter if a nominal effort was required every time we gained something? Since that effort may be slight, such as the effort required to pick money up from the ground, acknowledging that effort will in no way change how we act.
2. Interpretation: Not every cost comes in the form of spending money or effort. Every time we do something we pay an opportunity cost, which is the price of foregoing all the other things we could have been doing instead. Suppose, for example, that we choose to watch a TV show. The opportunity cost of watching that show is everything else we could have done in that time but didn’t. To watch the show we forego the opportunity to read another chapter of a book or to take a nap. And if you read the book instead of watch the TV show that action still has an opportunity cost, namely the TV show that wasn’t watched and the nap that wasn’t taken.
Evaluation: As with the previous interpretation there are rare cases where we may gain something without paying any opportunity cost. A bank error in our favor, for example. However, even if this interpretation isn’t universally true, opportunity costs are something that it is good to be aware of. Too often we jump on an enticing opportunity without really considering all the things we could have done instead. For example, people will wait in long lines for the chance to see a movie for free. But really it isn’t free, because by waiting in line they are giving up on everything else they could have done in that time. Now this doesn’t mean that waiting in line is necessarily a bad choice, just that we should be aware of its hidden costs.
3. Interpretation: When we obtain something we give up not having that thing, which is something in its own right. And, conversely, when we give something up we obtain not having it. Now this might seem like a kind of absurdity. After all, not having a thing is not, in a literal sense, something. But yet not having a thing may still be valuable in its own way. For example, I currently don’t have a TV. Not having a TV has its advantages. For example, I don’t have to worry about my TV getting stolen or breaking down. I am also not tempted to distract myself with it instead of getting something else done. Of course owning a TV has its benefits too. You can’t watch your favorite shows or play video games on a nonexistent TV. But not owning something should be treated as having some value too.
Evaluation: Too often ownership alone is seen as having value. This leads people to buy more and more things, because they can’t see any value in not having that thing. But I would consider such reasoning a mistake. There is certainly such a thing as having too much stuff. Of course having nothing would be problematic too; I wouldn’t want to overemphasize the value of not owning things. Between the two extremes of owning nothing and owning as much as possible there is probably some optimal middle ground where we own just enough. Where exactly that middle ground is will vary from person to person. What are their goals in life and what do they need to meet those goals? How much do they need to be entertained and what do they need to be entertained with? After those minimums are met not owning one more thing is probably more valuable than owning it. Owning one more thing means one more thing to find a place to put, one more thing to look after, and one more thing to divide your attention.
4. Interpretation: To obtain something we must give up on not wanting that thing. To obtain something first requires adopting an attitude where we believe that having that thing will make us happier and, thus where we will be frustrated by not having it. In general, however, not having such desires is superior to having them. For example, suppose that you see some money lying by the side of the road. Before you even pick that money up you have to desire it. And then suppose that the money is blown away at the last second. Now you are frustrated at your lost opportunity, even though you are no worse off than you were before. Clearly it would have been better to resist desiring the money, and not to attempt to pick it up. Of course even better would have been to attempt to pick up the money while at the same time not desiring it.
Evaluation: This interpretation promotes a kind of stoicism that encourages accepting the world as it is, which has been discussed previously (3:6). Motivating this stoicism is the desire to avoid unhappiness, which this interpretation illustrates by encouraging us to give up on desires because of the possibility that they may give rise to frustration. But not having desires may also result in inaction, which could be a problem in its own way. Now this interpretation suggests a kind of solution to the inaction problem, inasmuch as it suggests that it might be possible to reach for the money while not desiring the money. Of course this contradicts the saying under this interpretation, since that would be a case where we might obtain something without giving up on not wanting it. Even so, is this a solution to stoicism’s inaction problem? In a sense it is, so long as taking action without a desire really is possible (through training). However, if we get the money without desiring the money are we really benefited by it? Without the desire for the money getting the money won’t bring us any happiness, and so it seems that, in a way, we might as well have left the money on the ground.
5. Interpretation: When we obtain something we give up the way things currently are. Consider the following parable. There once was a man on a balcony, and outside that balcony was a fruit tree. In reaching for the fruit the man fell off the balcony. As that case illustrates sometimes giving up on the way things are can be a bad thing. Certainly it isn’t always a bad thing; not every person in that situation will fall. However, it is something we should consider before we reach out.
Evaluation: This interpretation too has a touch of stoicism in it, since it suggests that we may be better off accepting things as they are, instead of trying to change them since change can be dangerous. Of course not changing can be dangerous too. Not updating your operating system with the latest patches can leave you vulnerable to malicious hackers. Perhaps this interpretation is simply encouraging us to be aware of the risks inherent in all our actions. Being aware of the risks of an action is usually a good thing. But, on the other hand, being too aware of the risks can lead to paralysis. Every time we cross the street we run the risk that some drunk driver will kill us. But just because there are risks involved doesn’t mean that we should never cross the street. We have to keep in mind that being killed while crossing the street is extremely unlikely, as is falling to your death while reaching for some fruit. So, while the interpretation has some truth in it, it may be best kept out of mind if you are one of those people who tends to obsess about the terrible things that could happen.
6. Interpretation: If we don’t take the saying to imply that the same person who obtains something must give something else up, as the interpretations so far have, it could be understood as claiming that life is a zero sum game. In other words, anything you gain is someone else’s lose. To buy a TV from a store is to deprive the owner of that TV (which is why he takes something of yours in exchange). In economics this principle is called TANSTAAFL (there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch), which expresses the idea that for every gain, for both individuals and society, there is some cost, although it may be hidden or distributed among a number of different people. For example, suppose that a bank error gives you more money. That means that there is more money in circulation, which means that every dollar is devalued slightly. So your gain is effectively paid for by everyone else, since their money is now worth slightly less.
Evaluation: Of course the TANSTAAFL isn’t, strictly speaking, true. There are a number of exceptions where we can gain without someone else bearing an equivalent cost. The three most common exceptions are the discovery of new resources, technological improvements, and increased economic efficiency (such as through free trade). In all these cases it is possible for people to end up better off than they were before without someone else losing out (or at least their losses may be less than the gains). Still, because it is nearly universal, it is important to keep the principle in mind, especially if you subscribe to an ethical system which forbids benefiting at the expense of others. Suppose you find some money on the ground. If you keep that money it is a loss for the person who dropped it, since they can no longer get it back. If you really don’t want to benefit at the expense of other people the thing to do would be to give it back or, as a second best option, to donate it to charity. It is also an important principle to keep in mind in political contexts, since there are so few ways to make some people better off in society without making others worse off. To feed and shelter the homeless, for example, is to place a larger burden on taxpayers (although we might decide that doing so is worth it for reasons of social justice). If we really wanted to make the poor better off without harming anyone we would have to give them newly discovered natural resources, which they could sell in order to improve their lot in life.
7. Interpretation: Rather than taking the saying to express a truth about the price of obtaining things it can instead be understood as a subtle kind of advice. To obtain something significant you need to be willing to lose something, because usually obtaining something significant requires taking a risk. This isn’t true, obviously, for things you can buy in a store. But if you are asking a woman out you run the risk of rejection. The people who are best at obtaining things are those who properly acknowledge the risk involved. Those who ignore or underestimate the risk often take risks that are too big, and those who pay too much attention to the risk are too afraid to try and obtain anything. If you accept that there is always a downside involved in obtaining things, as this interpretation encourages, then you will look for the risk and avoid underestimating it. And if you believe that there is always a cost to obtain things then you won’t become overly risk adverse, as according to the interpretation risk is unavoidable.
Evaluation: Advice that helps people walk the thin line between being foolhardy and cowards when it comes to taking risks is good advice. However, there are probably better ways to give that advice than this saying. For example, we could have said “any substantial gain is accompanied by a risk”. Of course this is a consequence of allowing interpretations that diverge from the literal meaning; often we encounter good ideas that the saying doesn’t really express. But, since the point it to uncover good ideas, in the end it doesn’t really matter.
8. Interpretation: While it is possible to obtain things without giving up anything perhaps to truly possess something we must sacrifice for it. What does it mean to truly possess something? To truly possess something is not only to have it but to appreciate its value as well, and it is hard to appreciate the value of something if you haven’t paid the full price. Many people are nominally free, but only those who appreciate the value of freedom, and thus are willing to make sacrifices for it, are truly free.
Evaluation: It is true that there is a difference between merely having something and appreciating it fully. And it is also true that when we come to own something by chance we rarely understand how much it is actually worth. But, as with previous interpretations, true ownership might not necessarily require paying a price. For example, no one had to pay anything to be born, and thus to have life. But I think that there are a number of people who appreciate the value of their own lives, even though they got them for free. Still, it is a good general rule of thumb that if you want someone to value a thing that you should make them work for it.