It’s not for nothing that in David Henderson’s Ten Pillars of Economic Wisdom we find the following observation, coming in at number one: “TANSTAAFL: There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Everything comes with a cost. When people say something to the effect of “Healthcare should be free” (or swap out “healthcare” with anything else you like), they are making an impossible demand. The only thing this demand could mean is “when I receive healthcare, I shouldn’t have to pay for it.” But health care doesn’t become “free” just because you, personally, didn’t receive a bill. Someone else will end up bearing the cost. So what this statement necessarily entails is “when I receive healthcare, it should be paid for by someone else.” Now, very few people would be willing to openly say “When I receive [insert good or service here], other people should have to pay for it, not me.” But advocates of free healthcare, free college, free childcare, etc, are in fact making that claim. 

Or at least some of them are. I’d say the “such-and-such should be free” crowd probably falls into two camps. The first camp is made up of people who understand perfectly well that what they’re actually saying is “other people should pay my bills,” but know better than to say that openly. So, they use language like “free”, or perhaps declare the good or service in question to be a “human right,” as a means of sidestepping the no-free-lunch issue. But I also suspect that there are a lot of people who genuinely do think that as long as no bill is received, then something really was “free” in some grand metaphysical sense – manna falling from heaven. 

I recently got the impression of someone falling into the second camp when I saw a news story about how Southwest Airlines handles situations with customers who, due to their size, physically occupy more than one seat. Southwest’s policy is to grant the traveler an extra seat or, if need be, an entire row, without an additional charge. This is, as you might imagine, a very popular policy with people who find that they might need the extra space, particularly since with most other airlines if you use two seats, you have to pay for two seats. In the news story, it shows a picture one such traveler posted to her Instagram account, and on that post she included the following caption:

Some people need two seats on a plane. If so, the 2nd one should be free.

She also gave an interview with Fox Business where she said the following:

“The Southwest customer size policy helps many travelers offset the disproportionate costs that we incur because of needing extra room,” she said.

“And so, it’s not just about physical accessibility. It’s also about financial accessibility.”

I get the feeling this is someone who engages in magical thinking, and really does think the second seat actually is “free.” But, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Just because she’s not paying for the second seat doesn’t make the second seat free – it’s just a question of how the second seat gets paid for. 

First, there’s the opportunity cost – the extra seat used by this traveler is now a seat that cannot be used by someone else who also had travel plans. And this runs into another Southwest policy – the fact that Southwest Airlines uses open rather than assigned seating. Because heavyset travelers are able to buy just one ticket but use multiple seats, in cases where flights are full (or multiple passengers use this policy), Southwest simply removes other ticketed passengers from the plane to free up the necessary seats. The story also interviews a mother who, along with her two teen daughters, were bumped from a flight for just this reason:

But during their layover, Southwest Airlines officials informed her that the flight was “overbooked” and they could not board the plane — despite spending $620.72 on tickets.

“Please help me understand why do I have to spend the night without any accommodations in Baltimore because an oversized person didn’t purchase a second ticket,” the exasperated mother said, claiming all of her and the teenagers’ luggage was sent to their final destination in Denver.

She said airline officials told her “It is their right to kick a person out of the plane for the oversized person,” and shared a video of a conversation she had with an airline manager who said, “Even if there are not enough seats, we have to accommodate that customer of size.

“If they need an extra seat, we don’t charge for extra seats,” the manager could be heard telling the woman.

So that’s one way the extra seats being called “free” are actually not free, and how the costs are simply passed onto others. Money is, of course, another way costs can be passed along. Airlines can attempt to work out how often there will be cases of passengers who use two seats but only pay for one and make up the cost of the lost ticket sales by increasing the prices of everyone else’s tickets. In this case as well, the additional seat isn’t “free” – it’ s simply being subsidized by everyone else on the plane.

The caption in the above Instagram post would be more accurate if it said:

Some people need two seats on a plane. If so, the 2nd one should be paid for by other travelers.

Because one way or another, the costs of those extra seats must be paid for. If it’s not paid for by the person using it, the costs must be passed on to someone else. We can’t make this fact go away by simply declaring that things “should” be “free.” There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, on airplanes or anywhere else.