Paul Jacob

I don't mind puzzlement. I don't have to have the answer for everything.

Here's one: Google. Not only do I not know how Google's technology works, I have only the faintest glimmering of how the company makes money. (I think it has something to do with ads.) What I use by Google costs me nothing. (My eyes quickly move away from the ads.)

But I can read the newspaper, and it reports that Google's sales just came in at $2.46 billion, up 77 percent from the previous year. After discounting "traffic acquisition costs" (whatever they are), revenue for last year was $1.68 billion.

And here I am, using Google for free. I've contributed nothing to its effort (unless curious well- and ill-wishers looking my name up on Google counts).

I couldn't be happier. I get a great service. And they make money . . . off of other people.

So, when I hear someone complaining about big, greedy companies, I shake my head. There are a number of companies I get free goods off of all the time. And, unlike the government, they don't come knocking on my door demanding payment just because I get some benefit. (They ask nicely, if they do come a-knockin'.)

There's an economic concept here. It's called "free ridership." If Google were a government service, I'd be called a "free rider." My very existence would be something of a scandal to political philosophers and economists.

But since Google is a company making money, I'm categorized in some other way. Or maybe I'm still called a "free rider," but my status isn't quite so dangerous.

Not everyone agrees, of course. For some, everything must be paid for. "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch" means, for them, not that every lunch is paid for somehow, but that everyone should pay, dagnabbit, and if they don't pay for their lunch, something's horribly wrong.

I've heard tell of economists who somehow think that if there exists a free rider anywhere, that person really ought to be paying. I've read political theorists argue that because people get some benefit or other from some other person, that puts them into debt with that person or organization . . . even without a contract.

Nonsense. We don't expect our kids to pay for everything. We don't expect the desperately injured to pay for everything, either. Many of us freely give huge chunks of money to all sorts of people who are down and out.

And the very reason my wife insists I stop writing and mow the lawn is so that my neighbors freely can imbibe in the beauty that we, their friendly neighbors with the receding oil spot on the driveway (yes; it'll disappear someday), beneficently provide.

The world does not work on a strict pay-for-everything-you-get basis. The world actually works a lot more fluidly than that. Indeed, I hate to say it, but the great anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglass may have overstated the case when he wrote

You never get all you pay for, but you pay for all you get.

Well, we often do get all we pay for (Wal-Mart hasn't gypped me yet!), and we get a whole lot more, too.

We even get free deals from capitalist giants like Google . . . a dot com that isn't made of bubble.

So, what's the moral of this?

  1. People who insist on taxing you till you're broke just because you get some halfway positive effect from government are just petty tyrants, not proper democrats.
  2. People who insist that corporations are ipso facto predatory and evil are just plain nuts.
  3. Buying Google stock might not be a bad idea.
  4. All of the above.

I may not have an answer for everything, but I think I'll choose "d" this time.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.