Adam Zerner

The best things are often free or cheap

I've been watching Chef's Table on Netflix recently.

Even though those restaurants are crazy expensive, I've been thinking that it's something I want to experience. I'd like to know just how high of a level you can take food to.

Then I had the thought:

What about areas other than food? Maybe I should experience how good things can get in other areas too?

As I'm thinking about what those other areas might be, it's seeming like often times, the best things are free. Here are some examples.

  • Music: Whether you're partial to Tupac, Mozart, or The Beatles, you can probably find it for free. If not, you can pay a dollar or whatever on iTunes, or twenty bucks for a CD (or whatever digital format they currently use).
  • Art: Art isn't really my thing, but after a little bit of googling, it looks like you can find most stuff online.
  • Writing: Novels, essays, blogs, nonfiction, poetry - it's usually available for free online or at the library.
  • Software: If you enjoy reading and learning from beautiful code, there's a lot of highly acclaimed stuff in the world of open source that you can check out.
  • Education: For textbooks, sometimes they're available for free, sometimes you have to pay for them. But $100-200 will buy you an amount of content that you can mull over and dig into for a very long time. For courses, universities like MIT and Stanford have been offering the actual lectures and course materials for free for a while now.
  • Nature: For me personally, I live about 20 minutes away from the Hoover Dam, and four hours from the Grand Canyon. The Hoover Dam is free, and the Grand Canyon is a small fee. Others aren't quite so lucky, but many are only a road trip away.
  • Sports: Other than boxing's PPV, you can watch the greatest in the world on TV. If you want to go back and watch the classics, you can usually find it on YouTube. And if you want analysis, you can find places like Back Picks scattered around the corners of the internet.
  • Movies: I've never heard of a movie that costs more that twenty bucks.
  • Stand up comedy: Lots of specials are available online, but you haven't lived until you've been to the Comedy Cellar in NYC! It only costs ~$25.
  • Philosophy: Special shout out to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy!

Is there anything I'm forgetting? Of course. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive list. But I think that a back of the napkin excercise like this points pretty strongly towards many of the best things in the world being available for free or for cheap.

Note that this is a different point from the classic expression "the best things in life are free". That expression is talking about things like love and friendship. Here I'm talking about material things!

Are there any caveats to the above? Of course! Any important caveats? I'm not sure. The one that sticks out to me is the value of being physically present might be both important and expensive. Eg. going to a concert is a different experience than listening to a CD. Staring up at the Sistine Chapel vs looking at pixels on a screen. Being at the Super Bowl vs sitting on your couch.

Another caveat that comes to mind is the value of personal attention. Eg. discussing something with a brilliant philosopher vs reading their book. Or having a brilliant developer review your code and offer feedback vs trying to read and learn from their open source code. Although for that particular example, you can probably manage to get it for free! Similar with having smart people explain things to you and answer your questions. I'll always be grateful for random people on Stack Exchange who are crazy smart and took the time to explain things to me.

My impression is that the caveats are definitely worth noting, but the central point still stands: the best things are often free or cheap. For example, consider a concert vs a CD for music. I don't deny that there is value in being physically present at a concert. I just think that the pure music itself is a separate thing from the concert. That former is something that is free/cheap, and the latter happens to be expensive. The same point can be made for other examples. After doing that, I think that in totality, it ends up being true that the "best" things are "often" free or cheap.

Perhaps "often" is a bit of a cop out? What does "often" actually mean? Where is the bar for "often"? I don't have any precise answers, but I also am not trying to use it as a cop out. My point is that there are, in fact, a lot of places in our society where the best things are available for free. Such that there probably hasn't been a person who's ever lived who doesn't have any new toys in the playground to play with that are available for free or cheap.

If you have any thoughts, I'd love to discuss them over email:

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