A gift is free only for the recipient, not for the giver. If it were free for the giver too, it would mean that it required no use of scarce resources (inputs) or that it has no market value. It would not be a gift, because the recipient could get it for free by herself. “Look at the moon” is not a gift if the moon is shining. From an economic viewpoint, nothing is free that incorporates the use of scarce resources (including time) or has a market value (somebody else is willing to pay something for it). A gift may not be free even for the recipient if, to benefit from it, he needs to pay or do something (say, buy a subscription).

One may of course define “free” as one wishes, but there is an advantage in using a coherent concept, as does the analytical tradition of economics in which resources are scarce and valuable and nothing produced with these resources (including labor) can be free for everybody. Either the resources are conscripted or somebody has to pay for their use. Even for Christmas, free gifts do not exist: somebody pays for them–which should be pretty obvious.

A fund-raising advertisement on Wikipedia’s website gave me an excuse for this reflection. They were asking for some ridiculous minimum donation –something like two dollars and a few cents. The strategy obviously works: like every year, I fell for it and gave a little more. I don’t use Wikipedia as often as other reference tools. For example, I usually prefer Britannica’s signed entries. But I still use Wikipedia occasionally and often find it useful. Like many people, I felt morally compelled to contribute to charity which, in this case, amounts to the private production of a “public good.”

Soon after my contribution, I got an automated reply signed by the CEO of the Wikipedia Foundation; an excerpt:

Thank you so much for the one-time gift … to support Wikipedia and a world where knowledge is free for everyone. …

I’m truly grateful for your support in enabling billions of people to experience the gift of knowledge through Wikipedia.

We are determined to extend this access as far as possible to make sure that no matter where you are born or where you live, the ability to access free knowledge is always within your reach.

These few words contain much nonsense. A world with free knowledge is a mirage or a fairy tale. I thought that such clichéd marketing deserved a reply. I sent a short email explaining that

Knowledge is not and can never be “free for everyone.” Some access to some information can be paid by somebody else than the consumer; any other promise is highly misleading. Moreover, of course, the time spent on learning is part of the cost (non-price cost), which neither I nor you reimburse to Wikipedia users.

I should have added that checking the validity of new knowledge is costly, which also applies to Wikipedia. I noted that Wikipedia is useful but should not say that it gives what it cannot give.

My answer must not be very common, for I received an answer that had nothing to do with my little lesson on giving and the cost of knowledge. At the end of the answer was a note:

Due to the volume of inquiries we receive, we use Zendesk as a donor response platform. By emailing donate@wikimedia.org, you understand that your information will be processed by the Zendesk Group in accordance with Zendesk’s terms.

Merry Christmas to all EconLog readers! (Note that this wish gift did use some resources albeit of a very low marginal cost.)