There’s no such thing as a free lunch (unless you’re in France)

Jul 15, 2014
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Years ago wandering the side streets of Leuven, Belgium I stumbled across some graffiti that read, “Franz Ferdinand Found Alive: WW I A Mistake.” I’m not sure if this mischievous street tag represented the original expression (the phrase was often cited and later even titled a chapter in a book by Ned Lebow who revisits inflection points in international affairs), but I recollected this experience as Europe commemorates the centennial of The Great War.

The topic of transformational developments resulting from specific incidents or misunderstandings has been on my mind a lot lately. For instance, Brazil’s defeat last week under a German blitzkrieg in the World Cup semi-finals followed by its subsequent defeat in the consolation match has the potential to become such an inflection point for the whole country under President Rousseff.

moon-harsh-mistressThe same week by sheer coincidence, a friend alerted me to another such misunderstanding in science fiction literature which led me to an epiphany about French economic policy over the past forty years. In 1966, American writer Robert Heinlein published The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, a novel about a lunar colony’s revolt against rule from Earth. The novel, which discusses libertarian ideals and is often referenced in economics literature, titles its Book 3: TANSTAAFL! (an acronym for There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch).

Now here’s where it gets messy. the French adaptation of the book, called La Révolte sur la Lune, originally translated the acronym as, Un Repas Gratuit est Supérieur à Tout, which means there’s nothing better than a free lunch, ergo the opposite of Heinlein’s original intent!

Could it be that French economic theory has veered eratically due this simple error in translation? We certainly have a powerful bulwark in defense of entitlements in this country without seemingly any appreciation for the trade-offs. A fundamental ignorance of the basic principle of opportunity cost could explain the fairly widespread, steadfast opposition to economic sacrifice more charitably than mere selfishness. Even just last week, the majority of the ruling party’s politicians were still ranting against the executive’s reform plans in an effort to squeeze 18B€ of savings into 2017 as France confronts yet another year of stagnation.

The butterfly effect

Granted, we should be cautious in attributing so much influence to one little science fiction novel. However, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress held sway in American economic circles in the 70s. Economist Milton Friedman borrowed the free lunch idea for the title of his 1975 book of essays on public policy. In his Economics: Principles, Problems, and Policies textbook, Campbell McConnell writes that the no-free-lunch concept is “at the core of economics.” Could the mis-translated La Révolte sur la Lune have been conversely as impactful in France?

effet_papillonSmall effects can produce disportionally large unintended consequences in the course of history, as dramatized in the popular film The Butterfly Effect. On the subject of WW I, David Stockman writing in the Japan Times goes as far as to speculate that if the U.S. had not entered the battlefield, the Great War would have ended earlier (from European exhaustion), the Treaty of Versailles would have been different, fascism would not have arisen, and WW II would have been averted. The op.ed piece is of course pure speculation, but it provides for an interesting counterfactual thought experiment.

The lesson for startups is that everything has an opportunity cost. Even something that seems free has a hidden cost. I see it all the time: a specific non-strategic client is served because it’s profitable, a dead-end subsidiary is kept open because its revenues cover its direct costs, a legacy product is supported because it supposedly remains a cash cow. The costs are not directly obvious because they manifest themselves in hard-to-quantify parameters like time, attention, mindshare, and focus.

Fortunately, French startup entrepreneurs usually do not adhere to mis-translated economic theories.