TANSTAAFL is an acronym for the adage "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch," popularized by science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein in his 1966 novel "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress",Safire, William "On Language; Words Left Out in the Cold" New York Times, 2-14-1993 [http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0CE7DF1138F937A25751C0A965958260] ] Heinlein, Robert A. "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress" (1966). 1st Orb edition, 1997, 382 pp. New York: Tom Doherty Associates. ISBN 0-312-86355-1.] which discusses the problems caused by not considering the eventual outcome of an unbalanced economy. This phrase and book are popular with libertarians and the phrase is often seen in economics textbooks. In order to avoid a double negative, the acronym "TINSTAAFL" is sometimes used instead, meaning "There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch".

It demonstrates opportunity cost. Greg Mankiw described the concept as: "To get one thing that we like, we usually have to give up another thing that we like. Making decisions requires trading off one goal against another." ["Principles of Economics" (4th edition), p. 4.]

History and usage

The phrase refers to the once-common tradition of saloons in the United States providing a "free" lunch to patrons, who were required to buy at least one drink. Rudyard Kipling, writing in 1891, noted how he

came upon a barroom full of bad Salon pictures in which men with hats on the backs of their heads were wolfing food from a counter. It was the institution of the "free lunch" I had struck. You paid for a drink and got as much as you wanted to eat. For something less than a rupee a day a man can feed himself sumptuously in San Francisco, even though he be a bankrupt. Remember this if ever you are stranded in these parts. [cite book|first=Rudyard|last=Kipling|title=American Notes|publisher=Standard Book Company|year=1930 (published in book form in 1930, based on essays which appeared in periodicals in 1891) Gutenberg|no=977|name=American Notes by Rudyard Kipling]

TANSTAAFL means that a person or a society cannot get something for nothing. Even if something appears to be free, there is always a cost to the person or to society as a whole even though that cost may be hidden or distributed. [ [http://www.spectacle.org/0802/leonf.html Dr. Friedman was wrong - "Free Lunches" are as Common as Beer Guts and Bad Hairdos at a Highschool Reunion ] ] For example, you may get complimentary food at a bar during "happy hour", but the bar owner bears the expense of your meal and will attempt to recover that expense somehow. Some goods may be nearly free, such as fruit picked in the wilderness, but usually some cost such as labor or the loss of food for local wildlife is incurred.

The idea that there is no free lunch at the societal level applies only when all resources are being used completely and appropriately, i.e., when economic efficiency prevails. If not, a 'free lunch' can be had through a more efficient utilisation of resources. If one individual or group gets something at no cost, somebody else ends up paying for it. If there appears to be no direct cost to any single individual, there is a social cost. Similarly, someone can benefit for "free" from an externality or from a public good, but someone has to pay the cost of producing these benefits.

To a scientist, TANSTAAFL means that the system is ultimately closed — there is no magic source of matter, energy, light, or indeed lunch, that will not be eventually exhausted. Therefore the TANSTAAFL argument may also be applied to natural physical processes. (See Second law of thermodynamics.)

In mathematical finance, the term is also used as an informal synonym for the principle of no-arbitrage. This principle states that a combination of securities that has the same cash flows as another security must have the same net price.

TANSTAAFL is sometimes used as a response to claims of the virtues of free software. Supporters of free software often counter that the use of the term "free" in this context is primarily a reference to a lack of constraint ("libre") rather than a lack of cost ("gratis"). Richard Stallman has described it as "free as in speech not as in beer".

TANSTAAFL was a favorite rejoinder of Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize–winning former University of Chicago economics professor. [Friedman, Milton, There's No Such Thing as a Free Lunch, Open Court Pub Co (August 1975), 318 pages, ISBN 0-87548-310-0]

The prefix "TANSTAA-" is used in numerous other contexts as well to denote some immutable property of the system being discussed. For example, "TANSTAANFS" is used by Electrical Engineering professors to stand for "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Noise Free System".


* In 1950, a New York Times columnist ascribed the phrase to economist (and Army General) Leonard P. Ayres of the Cleveland Trust Company. "It seems that shortly before the General's death [in 1946] ... a group of reporters approached the general with the request that perhaps he might give them one of several immutable economic truisms which he had gathered from his long years of economic study... 'It is an immutable economic fact,' said the general, 'that there is no such thing as a free lunch.'" [Fetridge, Robert H, "Along the Highways and Byways of Finance," The New York Times, Nov 12, 1950, p. 135]
* The book "TANSTAAFL, the economic strategy for environmental crisis", by Edwin G. Dolan (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971, ISBN 0-03-086315-5) may be the first published use of the term in the economics literature.
* Spider Robinson's 2001 book 'The Free Lunch' draws its name from the TANSTAAFL concept.
* The cafe at IIM Ahmedabad is named Cafe TANSTAAFL.

See also

* Free lunch
* No free lunch in search and optimization
* No-arbitrage bounds – mathematical relationships specifying simple limits on derivative prices
* Parable of the broken window – story by Frédéric Bastiat written to illuminate the notion of hidden costs
* Tanstagi – There Ain't No Such Thing As Government Interference in the "Schrödinger's Cat trilogy"
* Regiving – practice of giving away one's goods to others
* Tragedy of the commons


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  • TANSTAAFL — ist eine Abkürzung für die englische Redewendung „there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch“, die durch den Science Fiction Autor Robert A. Heinlein in seinem Roman The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress von 1966 populär gemacht wurde.[1][2] Der Roman… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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  • tanstaafl — There ain t no such thing as a free lunch. Old saying, but Tanstaafl as a word was popularized by the book The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein. A. Hey, let s go into that bar they give away free drinks. B. Tanstaafl, my friend ...… …   Dictionary of american slang

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