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Perishable Thoughts —
Something For Nothing

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 14, 2008

With all the focus on bailouts by the federal government and, in fact, governments around the world, one question worth asking is when the government gives money to “bail out” an institution, where does that money come from?

A wry thought on this subject is provided by Rick Eastes, Director of Special Projects for Ballantine Produce Company, Reedley, California. Though this is Rick’s first contribution to our Perishable Thoughts section, Rick has contributed to the Pundit with many letters including these pieces:

Pundit Mailbag: Sunkist Responds To Article

Pundit’s Mailbag — Rick Eastes: Do The Right Thing With Food Safety

Pundit’s Mailbag — Immigration As An Economic Issue

Pundit’s Mailbag — Too Much Hype Over ‘Organic’?

Today, however, Rick gets a hat tip for passing along this reminder about the cost of “free” things:

“When someone gets something for nothing, someone else gets nothing for something.”
— Anonymous

There is no particular citation here. This is one of those ancient phrases playing off “something” and “nothing” and appearing in the English language for centuries. There are literally thousands of variants.

We asked Pundit Aide-de-camp James Elmer to find us a few examples. Here is his report:

Most instances of this quote are in the context of money, gambling, capitalism, investing, stock trading, confidence schemes, a lucky number in a lottery, etc. The wisdom of seeking equity in transactions, for all parties involved, is the lesson here, and is comprehendible across any industry or business relationship.

Below are 14 results I selected between 1922 and 1871 (oldest available). They are all available for download in their entirety through Google Books. Listed below each volume are the pieces of copy containing the variations as they appear in the texts:

Is Christianity a Failure?: What is Christianity? … (download entire volume)
By Fred J. Eddy
Published by Phillips Printing Co., 1922
Original from the University of California
256 pages, Pg. 2

“When we get something for nothing, some one else gets nothing for something, which is not fair, for the same reason that stealing is not fair.”

Bulletin of Photography: The Weekly Magazine for the Professional Photographer (download entire volume)
Published by F.V. Chambers, 1921
Item notes: (28, 700-724) 1921
Original from Harvard University
Pg 806

“The world has a bundle of money for the man who can produce the goods and nothing but disappointments for the man who expects to get something for nothing, or give nothing for something.”

The Scientific Monthly (download entire volume)
By James McKeen Cattell, American Association for the Advancement of Science, JSTOR (Organization)
Published by American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1917
Item notes: v.4 (1917)
Original from Harvard University
Pg. 146

The Luck Element, by A.G. Keller: “The passion for getting something for nothing and the fear of getting nothing for something have always fascinated the human mind.”

The Cyclopedia of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals (download entire volume)
By Deets Pickett, Elbert Deets Pickett, Clarence True Wilson, Ernest Dailey Smith
Published by The Methodist Book Concern, 1917
Original from Harvard University
Digitized Apr 28, 2008
406 pages Pg. 165

“…when one gets into a gambling establishment he will do one of two things — get something for nothing, or nothing for something. If he gets something for nothing he is a thief; if nothing for something, he is a fool.”

Commercial and Industrial Geography (download entire volume)
By Albert Galloway Keller, Avard Longley Bishop
Published by Ginn and company, 1912
Original from the University of California
357 pages, Pg. 32

From Chapter 11, The Industrial Regions of the World: “In the Arctic’s you get nothing for something, in the tropics something for nothing, while in the temperate regions you get something for something.”

The Union Postal Clerk (download entire volume)
By National Federation of Postal Clerks, National Federation of Postal Clerks
Published by National Federation of Post Office Clerks, 1908
Item notes: 4-6 (1908-1910)
Original from Harvard University
Pg. 19

“Something for nothing is the dram of the fool. Nothing for something is often the unpleasant awakening of the unwise investor.”

Parliamentary Debates: Senate and House of Representatives (download entire volume)
By Australia Parliament
Published by Commonwealth Govt. Printer., 1908
Item notes: v.40 1907 Oct
Original from the University of Michigan
Pg. 5,068

Mr. Dugald Thomson states in a debate of a proposed tariff on British goods: “(the honorable member for Corio) has declared that he does not believe in giving something for nothing, and, as the Government propose to give nothing for something, their action will harmonize with his views, so that he may vote with them without any qualms of conscience.”

The Pacific Monthly: A Magazine of Education and Progress (download entire volume)
By William Bittle Wells
Published by Pacific Monthly Pub. Co., 1904
Item notes: v.12 (1904)
Original from Harvard University

“The man who tries to get something for nothing generally succeeds in getting nothing for something.”

The Public (download entire volume)
By Louis Freeland Post, Alice Thatcher Post, Stoughton Cooley
Published by Louis F. Post, 1901
Pg. 45

From a speech by Rev. Herbert S. Bigelow, Vine St. Church in Cincinnati OH, given at the Single Tax club’s dinner in honor of Thomas Jefferson: “Whenever one man is permitted to get something for nothing, another man is compelled to take nothing for something”

Ethics of Success: A Reader for the Higher Grades of Schools; Illustrated by Inspiring Anecdotes from the Lives of Successful Men and Women
(download entire volume)
By William Makepeace Thayer, Albert Gardner Boyden
Published by Silver, Burdett & Co, 1893
444 pages Pg. 346-347

In section LXXXIV, titled “GETTING SOMETHING FOR NOTHING,” it is written that “something for nothing” schemes are so common that they scarcely awaken surprise and that men have to look sharp in the business world to get “something for something”. There is a manifest meanness in the desire to get something for nothing. He who does not give an equivalent for what he gets is a relative of the sneak thief. He violates the law of integrity by trying to palm off “nothing for something”.

Annual Report of the Dairy and Food Commissioner of the State of Michigan (download entire volume)
By Michigan Office of Dairy and Food Commissioner, Michigan, Michigan Food and Drug Commissioner, Office of Dairy and Food Commissioner
Published by Office of the Dairy and Food Commissioner, 1899
Item notes: 6th (1899)
Original from Harvard University
Pg. 15

(Begins with an anecdote about a slippery cream of tartar salesman): “It is the old principle of seeking to get something for nothing, though reversed, to that extent in this case, that they got nothing for something, since the goods received contained absolutely no cream of tartar whatever.”

The Chronicle: A Weekly Journal, Devoted to the Interests of Insurance, Manufacturers and Real Estate
(download entire volume)
Published by John J. W. O’Donoghue, 1887
Item notes: v.39 (1887)
Original from Harvard University
Pg. 92

“I have no faith in mutuals of any kind, and I think they are all trying to get something for nothing and give nothing for something”

The Popular Science Monthly (download entire volume)
Published by D. Appleton, 1886
Item notes: v.28 (1885-1886)
Original from Harvard University
Pg. 71

The Art of Investing, by John F. Hume: “in addition to their money’s worth, they have endeavored to get something from nothing, with the result, most generally, of getting nothing for something.”

Questions of the Day: Economic and Social (download entire volume)
By William Elder
1871
Original from the University of Michigan
Pg. 304

“Here there could be none of that haggling over price, which, if not stealing quite, has the tone and purpose of getting something for nothing, and in turn, generates that kindred necessity of selling nothing for something, which is called “selling dear,” in the creed of the worshippers of competition.”

Many thanks to James for his research. We think that the issue of bailouts tends to be thought of in two steps. First, the focus is on the immediate problem and the “solution” the bailout will provide. That the bailout must be paid for either by individuals — perhaps in the form of higher taxes or, collectively, perhaps through an inflation of the currency, is thought of only later.

We thank Rick Eastes for reminding us to think of it today.

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