The best things are often free or cheap

by adamzerner2 min read18th Mar 202115 comments

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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.

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I really like the content of the post, but disagree with its title. I believe a better title would have been:

"Great things are often free or cheap".

Some examples for better things for that list have been mentioned by other comments. But there is a deeper reason I think the title is quite problematic:

Looking for "the best" seems to me a losing strategy when it comes to quality of life. There is (almost) always something or somewhere else that is better but out of your reach for several reasons (money, distance, time, etc.). If you look for that your experience will be contrasted with a hypothetically even better one, devaluing your own experience.

So, I believe we should not look for "the best", but we definitely should look for "great", for experiences that truly enrich our life and, as you rightfully pointed out, in many cases are cheap and easily accessible if we only start looking for them.

Looking for "the best" seems to me a losing strategy when it comes to quality of life.

This. Instead of having the best X, you could have great X and great Y and great Z.

So many fantastic things are available for free or almost free. The limiting factor is time.

Hm, when I wrote the post and decided on the term "the best", I didn't actually think too hard about whether that is literally true. What I had in mind were things that are very, very close to the best. I'm not sure exactly what that means. Where is the bar that you have to pass to meet my operational definition of "the best"? I can imagine situations where things pass the bar and they aren't even in the top tier of things. But these things are still very close to being "the best".

Thinking about it now, I still believe that "the best things" is a more accurate choice than "great things". I'm trying to point to things that are pretty damn close to being the best. I don't see it as much of a problem that they aren't literally the best. But on the other hand, "great" feels to me like it doesn't have a strong enough connotation.

However, you make the point that perhaps I was trying to point at the wrong thing. That seeking out the best things is a losing strategy. I (can) agree with that for certain categories, like money or achievement. But for the things I've mentioned in this post, and even for the thing I used as a counterexample, food, I think that "the best" (operationally defined) actually are accessible enough to be worth pursuing.

Note that everything on your list has zero or near zero replication cost. A lot of essentials, tangible and intangible, are not like that. Food, companionship, living accommodations, etc. I don't know how far one can get on easy-clone stuff.

True. I'm having trouble thinking of good examples of things that have larger replications costs. Food is a good example. Companionship isn't the sort of ~consumer type of thing I was going for here. Living accommodations is interesting. At first I didn't include it because I was focused more on single experiences, but now that you mention it, I think that it belongs. Eg. experiencing what it is like to live nicest, most comfortable, luxurious atmosphere. That is something available for purchase via expensive hotels or Airbnbs, and they are in fact very expensive, consistent with your point about replication cost. Do any other examples come to mind for you?

Cars, phones, laptops, doctors, shoes, clothing, watches, jewelry, haircuts, makeup (both the physical makeup you might buy, and the attention of a professional to apply it really well), pillows, mattresses, chairs, yards/parks, gold, silver, bitcoin, ...

OK, out of that list, the only thing that's free/cheap is parks. (Of course my list is very biased, since I was primed with the idea of expensive things. But I don't think anyone would seriously contest the idea that difficulty of reproduction is an important factor which drives price. The question is more whether there are "many" top-in-class experiences which you can only have via difficult-to-reproduce things.)

But I don't think anyone would seriously contest the idea that difficulty of reproduction is an important factor which drives price. The question is more whether there are "many" top-in-class experiences which you can only have via difficult-to-reproduce things.

Agreed.

Cars, phones, laptops, doctors, shoes, clothing, watches, jewelry, haircuts, makeup (both the physical makeup you might buy, and the attention of a professional to apply it really well), pillows, mattresses, chairs, yards/parks, gold, silver, bitcoin, ...

Most of the examples you mention seem like they're conspicuous consumption/about status signaling. However, I think the category of comfort (pillows, mattresses, chairs) is a good one. As for phones and laptops, I personally think that a big part of that is status signaling, and unless you're doing something intense like video editing, I don't think that using the best computer in the world would be much of a better experience than a Macbook.

Importantly, almost all of your examples are only true very recently. With the exception of nature and comedy, all of these require the internet to get access to. Many of them require comparatively recent developments on the internet.

Fantastic point! That didn't hit me until you pointed it out. We live in an amazing time :)

To contribute to the above: note that there are better versions of the items on your list, but they cost logarithmically more money for relative to the improvements.

Music: meeting a famous bandmember in person is even better than playing them on spotify

Art: Having the actual, tangible piece in your dwelling is still better than looking at it on a monitor (though the game is narrowing)

Writings: There still is a market for commercial fiction that is at least better edited than the typical free fanfic.

Software: Custom software specific to your application is still better than the free stuff.  (well, usually, if you don't get ripped off.  Amazon's internal software is obviously better than anything a similar business can get, but it's exotically expensive)

Education: This is horrifically untrue.  The issue is the general facts are free but the specific high value knowledge very often requires an opportunity cost that can be terribly expensive, and the credentials are expensive.  I can read all day articles online, but a high reputation university to prove I know it to potential employers runs from $8k (OMSCS) to several hundred k (masters at a private school).  

  And as it turns out, the education system is just the start.  The really valuable knowledge comes from specific practical experience that comes at a cost.  A good surgeon has made some mistakes in training on real living humans.  A good aerospace engineer has been part of building several real rockets or airplanes.  A good embedded engineer has actually built a high performance system and gotten it to work.  They used to say a good general in ww1 came at the cost of losing thousands of men.  And so on.

Note that this is a place where neural implants or AI or life extension would help immensely because you wouldn't, as a civilization, have to pay these costs over and over with each new short-lived human.

Nature: the thing is, the really great nature is far away and, well, way more awesome.  The woods of backwoods kentucky are pretty but Yellowstone or islands in the pacific or new zealand, etc, are an entirely different level.

Sports: a general instance of the music case

Movies, live standup comedy: a general instance of the music case

Philosophy: I don't know how quantify 'goodness' here.  

Amazon's internal software is obviously better than anything a similar business can get, but it's exotically expensive

Amazon is a quite old company and has plenty of horrible internal legacy software. In general internal software is often worse then the kind of software people pay for from external vendors in many dimensions such as useability. 

Even it's customer facing software is often horrible. A task that you could think would matter like enterering banking details (IBAN numbers) is not implemented in a way that gives the user instead feedback.

Amazon obviously has some software that's very good but it also has large parts that aren't really in the interest of any individual team within the company to bring to high quality. 

These days I get very annoyed at Facebook as well because I often get one spam message per day which does manage to show up in my message history and takes 8 clicks to mark as spam and delete. 

Facebook seems to be historically amazing at putting every spam message directly in my inbox while putting request from people I don't know like journalists where I actually care about the request behind not in my inbox.

Yeah, ux is almost always ignored for internal software because you have a captive audience. If some peon hates the latest version of the warehouse app, it's not like they can download a competitor's app instead.

I don't think there are any important caveats, and I also wouldn't expect there to be. The reason I wouldn't is that if the best things in life weren't cheap, it would mean that the best things in life are the things that require lots of highly skilled labour that can't be amortised across a large number of people.

When things are expensive and highly desired, market forces incentivise people to put a lot of effort into making those things less expensive, so the only things that tend to remain that way are:

A) Things where there are hard constraints on how much effort needs to be put into creating them. 

B) Things that derive a large part of their perceived value from being produced in a way that requires lots of bespoke highly skilled labour.

Things that are B are not the best things in life almost by definition, and so few tangible products in the modern world are A (as opposed to say, human relationships) that they are unlikely to coincide with the best things in life. 

Interesting take. I don't know enough about markets to really say. To feel confident in your argument I'd want to feel confident that 1) your list of A and B is exhaustive and 2) that both A and B are true. To feel confident in 1 and 2, I'd want to see if I could come up with counterexamples. That seems like a difficult thing for a person to do though, because the space of best things is large.

Perhaps this is because for the "best" things, there are always people willing to make an effort to subvert any model where they have to pay (or pay too much)? 

It may be that keeping these items expensive/exclusive only serves to increase subversiveness. Better off living on lots of small bites than forcing people to look for a way through the backdoor at no cost.