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Knapp: Unicorns, mermaids, politicians, and ‘free’

Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler wants telephone companies to make robocall-blocking technology available to their customers. And he wants them to do so “at no charge.”

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, riffing on primary opponent Bernie Sanders’s campaign platform (and on a less ambitious proposal from sitting president Barack Obama), now supports “tuition-free” college for the children of families with annual incomes of less than $125,000.

“Free” may be the most popular word in the English language. It’s at least as popular as “unicorn” and “mermaid” (two other words for things that don’t exist in real life).

Everything that’s real costs something. When we talk about making something “free,” what we’re really talking about is shifting those costs, either to other payers or to some different method of pricing or payment.

In the Internet age, we’ve become used to the idea of “free” online services. But, as I am far from the first to point out, those services aren’t “free.” They’re paid for by advertisers. What are the advertisers buying? They’re buying us: Our information, our eyeballs, our attention. They’re willing to provide us with email, search services, games, the works … in exchange for the opportunity to sell things to us. And their costs for providing those services are built into the prices of the things we buy from them. So really, we’re the ones who are paying after all.

The technology that Tom Wheeler wants the phone companies to offer to all of us “at no charge” costs money to develop. It costs money to deploy. It costs money to maintain. Who’s going to pay those costs? Tom Wheeler? No. The phone companies. And their customers. Even if it’s not broken out as a listed charge on your phone bill, either your bill will go up or the service you’re paying for will be cut back somewhere else.

Ditto “free” college education. Campuses don’t build or maintain themselves. Contractors and staff build and maintain them. Professors don’t lecture at their own expense and out of the goodness of their hearts. They must be paid. As must the phone bills, the electric bills, the water bills, etc.

Clinton’s plan isn’t a plan for free college. It’s a plan to make college 100 percent taxpayer-subsidized. There’s a difference. Words mean things, and we should be very clear on just who’s going to pay for Hillary Clinton’s plan. Hint: It won’t be Hillary Clinton.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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