There’s No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
Over the holidays I came across a story circulating on the internet that Javier Milei, Argentina’s recently elected President has proposed forbidding government agencies from using the word “free” when referring to services funded by taxes as he considers it to be a lie.
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So far, the only references to this that I’m able to find are on X (formerly Twitter) and Reddit, neither of which are held up as paragons of truth so the story must be taken with a grain of salt. However, the story's veracity is unimportant because if he didn’t say it, he should have. Government services aren’t free, the money has to come from somewhere.
The reason this story clicked with me is because in early December the Canadian government unveiled details regarding the Canadian Dental Care Plan (CDCP) which is broadly advertised as “free dental,” especially by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP).
However, Milei is right to say – if in fact he did say it – that calling a government service free is a lie. In fact, not only won’t the government deny that it isn’t free, they will also call it free in one sentence and in the next tell you the actual cost. “Free” dental care in Canada, or the CDCP, is a $13 Billion insurance program that will provide “free” dental coverage on a tiered basis based on individual and family incomes. For those keeping score, this “free lunch” will cost the average taxpayer $4.4 Billion per year or $142 per person (who isn’t eligible for the “free” service).
While this may not sound like a lot, imagine being handed that bill after eating your “free lunch.” If $142 doesn’t sound like enough to cover dental costs, it isn’t but when you factor in that only about 22% of the population will qualify for the program, the actual coverage rises to around $490 per person per year - less the cost for the government to administer it of course. Which brings us to my next point…
If you think a service should be universal, why not just give people the money?
Even if one were to concede that “free” dental is a worthy program, there are less expensive and more efficient ways to do it. Cutting taxes, always a favorite of conservatives, won’t help the poor get dental care, but as the subtitle implies, why not just send people a check? Why does the government need to be inserted as a “middleman” between the citizen and the dentist? Excellent questions and I can think of a couple of answers:
Bureaucrats need jobs too.
Based on information from the Parliamentary Budget Office, government salaries amount to approximately 9% of the overall budget. Using this rough estimate, we can assume that $396 Million of the $4.4 Billion per year that the CDCP will cost will go to salaries. As we don’t have the detailed cost breakdown of the plan, we can roughly assume that this is the cost of administering the program.
Why not save the roughly $400 million, or $10 per citizen, and just send people a check? It’s a new program so it wouldn’t cost any jobs, just prevent (another) increase in the size of the federal bureaucracy. Surely sending out checks could be handled by the existing taxation and refund process without too much effort. Well…
If we gave you the money, you might not spend it on what we want you to.
It’s difficult to say if this is about control, an arrogant belief that they know better, or a combination of both, but does it really matter? All three are bad. Who is better situated to understand your needs, you or some government employee?
If the government sent you a check (someone else’s money) and you wanted to spend it on…oh, I don’t know…food for your kids, what right does a bureaucrat have to tell you that you should spend it on the dentist instead? When examined this way, it’s difficult to see this as a government program designed to help people and much easier to see it as what it is a means of social control in the vein of alcohol and cigarette taxes and a way for politicians to justify the jobs of bureaucrats and politicians.
“There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” “money doesn’t grow on trees,” and “if it sounds too good to be true it probably is” leap to mind when I see the details of the CDCP and, frankly, any government service – I’ll throw my American readers a bone here and say two words, “free college.”
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to help the less fortunate, it’s actually quite admirable, but a little common sense is in order. I’m a free speech absolutist so Milei’s alleged proposal to ban government agencies from using the word “free” when referring to services funded by taxes is a little heavy-handed for me, but his heart is in the right place.
It would be much easier if, when we see a politician refer to a service as “free” we remember the answer to that famous question, “how can you tell when a politician is lying?” (his lips are moving).
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