Elliot Richards: “This doesn’t prove anything. I could have done this myself. I even had to pay for it.”
The Devil: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
Now unfortunately the nature of Hollywood and the fact that it exists on a different plane of reality (one where the economy is run by unicorns and movies that make 50 million above cost somehow were losses) a lot of the economic facts of this series are going to be more accidental truths stumbled upon by the writers and directors than intentional moves to show us how real economics works. However, I might be able to say that director Harold Ramis, who brought us Groundhog Day with its clear understanding of the idea that all skills can be learned with time and effort or what is really valuable in life, and Ghostbusters with its very insightful moments that the EPA is populated by dickless idiots and correct observations like, “You’ve never worked in the private sector, they expect results.” But who knows, maybe I’m reading intent where there was none…regardless, the movie Bedazzled, the story of a hapless loser who sells his soul for seven wishes from the Devil, does offer us some excellent economic lessons.
Anyone familiar with Robert Heinlein’s classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress should find the acronym above very familiar. TANSTAAFL. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.
It’s one of the most basic lessons of economics. EVERYTHING has a price. Even if you don’t pay for it now or even ever…someone will pay for everything.
Our clueless hero, Elliot Richards, in Bedazzled learns the hard way that just wishing for things doesn’t work (despite the Devil warning him very clearly that there is no such thing as a free lunch).
Everything you want comes with a cost. And whether it is time, effort, blood and sweat…or just your soul…every cost will be paid. And I think this movie is very clear about this.
Richards: I don’t want another wish. […] I really don’t want it.
The Devil: What do you mean you don’t want it, you get seven wishes.
Richards: Well there are things that I want but nothing you can give me.
The Devil: What is that supposed to mean?
Richards: Well um last night when I was lying in jail I was talking to this guy. I realized that wishing just doesn’t work. All my life I’ve wished to be better looking, to be richer successful, talented, whatever. And I always thought wouldn’t it be great if someone could just wave a magic wand and make that happen. Well, I realized that it just doesn’t work by magic.
The Devil: I think I’m going to be sick.
Richards: I’ve been starting to think it isn’t really how far we go in life anyway, it’s how we get there that really matters.
Everything comes with a cost. And any time you think that there is something without a cost that you are getting something for free…be very worried because that is where the costs are the highest. Because it is often either being paid for by someone else…or it is taking something away from you that is more valuable (but less tangible) than just money or property. And, in the long run, the soul pays all debts.
Even with charity. Someone gave you a hundred dollars out of charity…it still costs them a hundred dollars and the loss of the opportunity to spend it on something else…now they may get paid back in the psychological happiness that comes from personal charity, but they will get paid back. And you will pay the cost of feeling either indebted to that person or to be worthy of the act of charity. (It’s why a welfare state is so dangerous, it strips the act of charity of all the psychological benefits and costs and merely costs the middle class their money to pay people who will not work for a living.) and thus will never “earn” anything or appreciate it and they will in the end be the bigger looser.
There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.
2. Contract Law is Sacrosanct (and always read the contract)
Modern society and economics is based on contract law. Be it anywhere from the social contract to your cell phone contract. And, all pun intended, the Devil is in the details.
The Devil: “Let’s look at your contract.”
It is part of the joke that the contract for Elliot’s soul is a 2,000+ page legal document printed in small font legalese. (Pro tip…anytime any kind of legal document is 2000+ pages it is the work of the Devil and should not be signed or passed).
Contracts are so important that even the Devil has to abide by them, as there is an escape clause in Eliot’s contract, and as much as she hated it, she had to obey it. (Another pro tip: don’t trust anyone who fails to honor contracts; they will screw you any chance they can find.) That’s how important contract law is, even the Devil follows it. Modern economics are based on contract law and to all the anarchists out there who think you can run an economy without contract law necessary to enforce it, you’re beyond stupid. Anarchy at it’s best.
The other point here that the movie makes clear is that you should always read the contract. If you don’t read the contract and just wait to see what’s in it only after you have entered into it, you will always, always, always get burned….as Elliot finds out in how badly his wishes turn out…and as America is finding out right now.
3. Trade is only an exchange of value for value.
The Devil: Seven utterly fabulous wishes for one piddling, little soul?
Richards: […]“If it’s so useless then how come you want it so much?”
One thing to understand about modern economics is that in any legal, consensual exchange both people must receive what they consider an exchange of value for value (in fact an exchange only take place when both parties feel they are improving their situation). And if people want something, or are willing to give you something, then that means you are exchanging something of value.
True this is a variation on the free lunch principle, but it needs repeating.
If someone is willing to give you free phones or food or promises of healthcare you may want to ask why they’re giving you these things and what they want in return…and what the long term consequences of such an exchange are.