Free Lunch

So let’s say I’ve got an old toy. Some trinket from my youth that I find one day while cleaning out my parents’ attic for them or something. It’s still in fine condition, and I don’t remember it at at all – in other words, it holds no nostalgic or sentimental value to me, though it might be a fun thing for some new kid.

So I decide to sell it. I clean it up, take a few pictures, and post it to whatever site people use to sell stuff like that these days. Let’s say I’m charging $20.

Now, someone contacts me to inquire about the toy. They ask some preliminary questions as to its origin and condition, which I answer truthfully. This person now says something like this:

“Listen, you don’t really need the $20. And you certainly don’t need the toy – you wouldn’t have bought it in a store, you only have it out of more or less dumb luck. So you really should just give it to me.”

(By the way, if you’ve ever sold something online, you know that this happens in some variation like 80% of the time.)

So where’s the flaw in this stranger’s argument? They’re right about the $20 – it won’t make or break me. They’re right that I don’t need nor even want the toy, and I only even have it in my possession due to dumb luck. So I’m convinced! Instead of asking for $20, I’m just going to give it away for free.

But… not to them.

You see, there’s a fundamental difference between the people you sell stuff to and the people you give stuff to for free.

If I sell something for $20, I’ve only got one criteria for who I sell it to – they have to be willing to give me $20. I don’t care about anything else about them. But when I give something away for free, I care a LOT about who the recipient is.

Why? Because selling stuff is self-sustaining. I can theoretically sell an infinite amount of products or services as long as I’m making a profit, because that money will enable me to sustain the provision of a product or service indefinitely. If I’m a farmer and I sell corn, the money I make buys more seed, fertilizer, equipment, labor, etc. – all of which gets me more corn. But if I give the corn away, I’ll quickly run out and the cycle will end. So I have to be extremely careful to not give away more corn than I can afford – and the number of people who want free corn will always exceed who I can provide for in that way.

So if I have 10 ears of corn to give away, and a thousand people want free corn, how do I decide? For most people, they want to be not only altruistic, but effectively altruistic. They want to give where it will do the most good. They want to give those 10 ears of corn to the truly needy, the starving, etc. If you buy an ear, I don’t care about your station or circumstances, but I’m not trying to give corn away to millionaires.

So back to the toy – if I’m going to donate it, I want to donate it to Toys for Tots or a local pediatric ward at a hospital or a needy family or something like that – not just to someone who bugs me about it because they’d rather not pay. If you’re willing to buy it, then your circumstances are largely irrelevant (I say “largely” because I still might just refuse to do business with you if you’re like a Nazi or someone who talks in the theater, etc.).

So the next time someone asks you for something for free – give it some thought. And if you decide to give it away, make sure you let them know who you decide to give it to.

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