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Editorial: A Free Lunch, Anyone?

‘It’s a free country, isn’t it?’ So we sometimes say, and sometimes believe.  And it is true that the British state permits a relatively high degree of freedom of action and of thought.  To some, such relative freedoms are a source of patriotic pride; to socialists, they are a cynical reminder of the freedoms we do not have.  It depends on what we think freedom is, what we believe we are entitled to as human beings, and how we want to live.

One particular freedom is denied us everywhere within our capitalist world, and that is the freedom to obtain the things we need if we do not have the money to pay for them. ‘Things don’t grow on trees’ we are told as children, unschooled as yet in the rules of our society.  Very quickly we come to understand that ‘free offers’ are not really free, that someone is paying for them, and it is probably us.  And by the time we are worldly-wise we know that ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’, and when someone offers us something for nothing, we turn suspicious, and wonder what they want in return.

Exchange is so ubiquitous within our world of capitalism that it has come to seem an inevitable and indispensable thing, a part of human nature. Adam Smith thought so in 1776 when he wrote of man’s natural propensity to ‘truck, barter and exchange’.  Yet even within capitalism, exchange is not universal.  We share within our families, giving without expectation of return.  Online communities increasingly share software and information, while sites like ‘Freecycle’ facilitate the free circulation of goods.  We give freely to charities.  We give because we like giving.   And our giving, though it is constrained by capitalism, is perfectly normal for us. In communities of homeless people, such as ‘cardboard city’ that grew up in London’s Southbank in the 1980s, it has been noted that goods obtained by individuals are often freely shared - not bartered or exchanged as we might suppose. When natural disasters strike and we are liberated from the social rules that bind us, people invariably and spontaneously resort to sharing, giving and receiving freely, making sure that goods go to those most in need of them.  Sharing is not only a workable system of relating to one another, but a far more efficient and liberating way to meet the needs of the community.

Giving and getting for free may seem strange or unusual to us with our ingrained habits of thought, and may provoke all kind of anxieties about our ability to meet our needs.  It shouldn’t.  Our systems of property, ownership and exchange are of very recent origin.  Our earliest societies were all sharing communities, not only giving and receiving for free, but ensuring everyone had what they needed.

The huge inequalities of wealth in our capitalist societies, the curtailment of our freedoms and the vast conflicts of competing interests all have their origins in those uniquely human inventions: private property and exchange.  We do not need them.  It’s time to offer ourselves a free lunch.