TANSTAAFL and Saving: Not the Whole Story

Behind the myths and half-truths.


How often have you heard someone say, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” or, “Saving is the path to economic development”?  Many treat these statements as the alpha and omega of economic common sense.

The problem is they are myths.

Or, at least, popular half-truths.  And they aren’t your garden-variety myths because people who favor the free market tend to say them all the time.  I’ve said them myself, because they do contain more than a grain of truth.

“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” (or TANSTAAFL) means that, with a limited budget, choosing one thing means sacrificing something else.  Scarcity entails tradeoffs.  It also implies that efficiency means using any resource so that no other use will give a higher reward for the risk involved.

That saving is necessary for rising labor productivity and prosperity also contains an economic truth.  No less an authority than the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises has stated this many times.  In an article published in The Freeman in 1981, for example, he said:

The fact that the standard of living of the average American worker is incomparably more satisfactory than that of the average [Indian] worker, that in the United States hours of work are shorter and children sent to school and not to the factories, is not an achievement of the government and the laws of the country. It is the outcome of the fact that the capital invested per head of the employees is much greater than in India and that consequently the marginal productivity of labor is much higher.

The Catalyst

But the statement is true in much the same way that saying breathable air is necessary for economic development is true.  Saving and rising capital accumulation per head do accompany significant economic development, and if we expect it to continue, people need to keep doing those activities.  But they are not the source–the catalyst, if you will–of the prosperity most of the world has seen in the past 200 years.

What am I talking about?  Deirdre McCloskey tells us in her 2010 book, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the World:

Two centuries ago the world’s economy stood at the present level of Bangladesh. . . .  In 1800 the average human consumed and expected her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren to go on consuming a mere $3 a day, give or take a dollar or two [in today’s dollars]. . . .

By contrast, if you live nowadays in a thoroughly bourgeois country such as Japan or France you probably spend about $100 a day.  One hundred dollars as against three: such is the magnitude of modern economic growth.

(Hans Rosling illustrates this brilliantly in this viral video.)

That is unprecedented, historic, even miraculous growth, especially when you consider that $3 (or less) a day per person has been the norm for most of human history.  What is the sine qua non of explosive economic development and accelerating material prosperity?  What was missing for millennia that prevented the unbelievable takeoff that began about 200 years ago?

A More Complete Story

Economics teaches us the importance of TANSTAAFL and capital investment.  Again, the trouble is they are not the whole truth.

As I’ve written before, however, there is such a thing as a free lunch, and I don’t want to repeat that argument in its entirety.  The basic idea is that what Israel M. Kirzner calls “the driving force of the market” is entrepreneurship.  Entrepreneurship goes beyond working within a budget–it’s the discovery of novel opportunities that increase the wealth and raises the budgets of everyone in society, much as the late Steve Jobs or Thomas Edison or Madam C.J. Walker (probably the first African-American millionaire) did.  Yes, those innovators needed saving and capital investment by someone–most innovators were debtors at first–but note: Those savings could have been and were invested in less productive investments before these guys came along.

As McCloskey, as well as Rosenberg and Birdzell, have argued, it isn’t saving, capital investment per se, and certainly not colonialism, income inequality, capitalist exploitation, or even hard work that is responsible for the tremendous rise in economic development, especially since 1800.

It is innovation.

And, McCloskey adds, it is crucially the ideas and words that we use to think and talk about the people who innovate–the chance takers, the rebels, the individualists, the game changers–and that reflect a respect for and acceptance of the very concept of progress.  Innovation blasts the doors off budget constraints and swamps current rates of savings.

Doom to the Old Ways

Innovation can also spell doom to the old ways of doing things and, in the short run at least, create hardship for the people wedded to them.  Not everyone unambiguously gains from innovation at first, but in time we all do, though not at the same rate.

So for McCloskey, “The leading ideas were two: that the liberty to hope was a good idea and that a faithful economic life should give dignity and even honor to ordinary people. . . .”

There’s a lot in this assertion that I’ll need to think through.  But I do accept the idea that innovation, however it arises, trumps efficiency and it trumps mere savings.  Innovation discovers free lunches; it dramatically reduces scarcity.

Indeed, innovation is perhaps what enables the market economy to stay ahead of, for the time being at least, the interventionist shackles that increasingly hamper it.  You want to regulate landline telephones?  I’ll invent the mobile phone!  You make mail delivery a legal monopoly?  I’ll invent email!  You want to impose fixed-rail transport on our cities?  I’ll invent the driverless car!

These aren’t myths. They’re reality.



Sandy Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.

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