Sunday, October 4, 2009

The free lunch

You know it has to be the oldest line ever. "You can't get something for nothing". And yet in spite of this sage advice the human spirit still can't resist the mirage of getting something for free. Whether it’s a marketing gimmick or a 419 scam the appeal for the free lunch pulls us as relentlessly as gravity. We fall for it every time. I was reminded of this human failing by two recent events. The first was a stampede at the City Hall in Jakarta. The Governor was having an open house to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Visitors were to receive a free gift of food and a small amount of cash. Although he probably meant well the governor chose to have this open house in spite of a similar gathering causing a stampede in Surabaya a year ago that resulted in the deaths of 21 people. Leaders should know better - why engage in such risky behaviour? The other little event was a potato giveaway in Canada that caused massive traffic jam and 8 km queues. The spectacle of affluent people lining up (in their SUVs) for free potatoes beggars belief.
The frenzy for the free lunch is not a new phenomenon by any means. I can recall back in my college/bartending days some bright light manager had the idea of giving away free chilli con queso (it was a Mexican theme cafe and bar) and tortilla chips during happy hour. Once word reached the street we were deluged with clients of the worst possible description jostling over who was first in line at 5:00 when the con queso pans hit the floor. They were lining up outside the building for their free snack and most became indignant when I mentioned that they really needed to order a drink if they wanted to stay there. I had a similar experience with an all-you-can-eat spaghetti night at another establishment. Within a few weeks of the promotion the largest, hungriest people imaginable converged on our little cafe like ravenous piranhas. It was almost like they were trying to outdo each other in their gluttonous frenzy. After a few more weeks we finally had to cancel the promotion as it was simply too painful to watch grown men (and women) eat 4 large plates of spaghetti every Thursday evening.

Now in no way am I discouraging charity, charitable acts, or charitable people. These people should be commended. Charitable action though, should be done carefully or even anonymously. It seems to do no good to the giver or the receiver when the act of giving results in pandemonium. Likewise any political message given though free potatoes is lost in the circus that followed. Overt displays of largesse do tend to bring out the worst in people. In spite of all our philosophies, moralizing, laws and ethics we are still quite literally willing to walk over our neighbour for a free lunch.


H. Nizam said...

Hi Pj,
I thought that only people in Indonesia who would be extremely eager to get free things.

pj said...

Hi Harry

I think its something in our genes. I suppose thats why we should avoid putting ourselves in these kinds of situations.

Thanks for dropping by.

Jakartass said...

Some say that consumerism merely aping the west.

Those who have little want enough. Those who have enough want more, if only to flaunt it.

And those who give it away to demonstrate that they have it tp give it away are the worst of the lot.

pj said...

Hi J
"And those who give it away to demonstrate that they have it tp give it away are the worst of the lot."

Couldn't agree more.