THE BLOG
11/03/2011 06:47 pm ET Updated Jan 03, 2012

Are the Best Things in Life Still Free?

What people get free in life, they tend not to value highly, conversely, when people become invested in something -- via money and/or effort -- they generally attach real importance and value to it. That principle applies pretty equally to gorgeous sunsets as well as to more personal and tangible things.

It appears that this type of human behavior in modern society has been growing in recent decades and may be becoming something of a systemic problem that should be addressed.

A few examples will make this clearer. Then let's see if there are any themes which could be deconstructed.
  • People with non-contributory health benefit plans rarely are fully familiar with those plans, yet they take for granted that they have full protection and are often shocked to discover serious gaps in their coverage. Also there are cases when a non-contributory plan is modified to require as little as a 10 percent contribution, beneficiaries frequently drop the whole plan because they either have/had other coverage or they simply do not see their benefit for their share of the cost. In the meanwhile their employer and others had been incurring real costs for no useful purpose. And, if they get sick with no coverage, hospitals care for them a lot of the time and charge those costs to the whole system and thus all the people who do pay have to pay more.
  • People who get free transportation fare cards or free passes to various places or events rarely connect those benefits to the fact that they received something of value. They take it for granted, as a matter of right, and often use the benefits casually and excessively.
  • People who get a tax break - like favorable capital gains treatment for carried interests in investment funds - not only take their tax benefit for granted, they frequently laboriously articulate justifications for why they deserve such a rich tax break because it raises more capital for American industry. In fact there is essentially no connection to such an outcome. The carried interest is basically a method for determining the size of a bonus which is simply additional normally taxable compensation, when a profit is earned by the real capital at risk.
  • There are people who believe they are "entitled" to Social Security and Medicare because they have rights flowing simply from having attained a certain age. Unless they (and/or their employer) paid Social Security taxes which were deducted from their pay checks during their working years they have no rights. Those for whom payments were made frequently receive several multiples of what was contributed for them and they tend to have no interest in the subject except to protect that amount. The recipients do expect what they get BUT they often do not value it as something they earned because it comes out of a mysterious system of what they think of as entitlements.
  • Over the air free television is struggling in competition with pay TV and cable channels, yet to date the best and most professional offerings still come from over the air. At the same time many people complain a lot about the infernal advertisements that also come over the air. People take for granted what they get for free and object to the form in which they get it. At the same time they pay for movies and other cable offerings which they obviously value. They seem to take for granted the free over the air simply because for a long time that's all there was.
  • Within families it is common and traditional for parents and grandparents to provide shelter and sustenance to children and other relatives and frequently, when there are sufficient resources, they also supply educational and other opportunities to their young. In far too many cases when those benefits come as a matter of course and easily, they are taken for granted and often utilized irresponsibly. On the other hand when a young person has to invest her/himself in obtaining that education by working and obtaining scholarships they very frequently stay with the challenge longer and better and get far more out of it.
  • People who are employed really tend to value their jobs. Some of the same people, when they become unemployed and receive unemployment benefits, have a tendency to take those benefits for granted until they are about to run out, at which point panic sets in. When the checks keep coming without going to work, with notable exceptions, there are people who get lulled into believing it could go on forever. The unemployment insurance is not really free, but employees seem not to notice what they have paid or what the limitation on the real benefit is.
It is not easy to tease out an answer as to why these and other examples indicate an increase in today's world of taking free for granted, yet valuing what is sought out more highly. One reason is that as the modern developed world's societies have properly created greater paternalism, there has been a corresponding growth of expectation of basic human rights to entitlements, which in turn has attenuated the links between the source of those benefits and understanding by recipients of what it took to create those benefits. A century ago almost everyone who needed or wanted most of the types of benefits illustrated in the above examples had to seek out and invest themselves to obtain them. Therefore the balance between what people get in life seems to have shifted considerably from self help to expectation of automatic free receipt. That tendency has been encouraged as time passes by a political process, which, to gain support, has encouraged people to seek more for themselves at the expense of others.

How can modern society get a better balance between self help and entitlement? The first step would be to illuminate the fact that what may seem to be free really is not. Obviously there are costs associated with most of the free benefits that people expect and receive. Perhaps, as with all foods today in which the container is required to show the caloric content and nutritional analysis, it might be possible to put some form of labels on all free benefits to illuminate constantly to the recipients the real value of what they are getting. Perhaps there might be better ways to make the free available conditionally. For example, if it is a scholarship, and the recipient fails to complete the course, then he/she would end up owing something for having failed to take appropriate advantage of it.

A final observation is that while there are no obvious or simple ways to reverse this observed trend, the best starting point may be simply to be aware of the issue and to acknowledge that it needs to be thought about in the context of future consequences, the most important of which is that much of the hidden costs of free will, in due course, fall on our descendants.

Perhaps when "the best things in life are free" was more ascendant, fewer of life's essentials were free and thus because of scarcity they were valued more then? An increase in necessary societal paternalism may have unwittingly and unintentionally weakened many people's appreciation and determination that the free things in life need to be valued to be properly appreciated.