"You can make money giving things away," says Chris Anderson, author of the bestseller Free: The Future of a Radical Price (price: $26.99). "There really is a free lunch." But powerful economic trends generate equal forces pushing in the other direction. Google may prosper by giving away services and data. But the technological revolution Anderson celebrates—and the challenging economic environment—are pushing many enterprises to ask customers to shell out for goods and services that used to come gratis. Paid is rapidly becoming the new free.
When he acquired The Wall Street Journal in August 2007, Rupert Murdoch considered liberating the paper's digital journalism, even though 1.06 million people pay to subscribe to WSJ.com. But as the advertising that supports his many media platforms dried up like the Outback in January, the wily media mogul performed a backflip. "We intend to charge for all our news Web sites," he said in August. Customers of airlines—one of the few industries more desperate for revenue than newspapers—have accepted the $15 to $25 surcharges for checking luggage added in the past year with minimal complaints. This summer Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary floated the idea of charging passengers £1 ($1.50) to use the in-flight loo.
Cultural institutions, hit hard by the recession, have likewise jumped aboard the paid bandwagon. Want to see the lovely wax palm (Ceroxylon quindiuense) in the San Francisco Botanical Garden, or the Whistler prints exhibit at the University of Arizona Museum of Art? Thanks to newly-adopted admission fees, it'll now cost you a few bucks. In July the Fairfax County Parks Authority in Virginia began charging entrance fees to formerly free havens like Lake Accotink.
As the greening of America's auto fleet puts a dent in gasoline purchases—and, hence, gas-tax revenues—authorities are finding other ways to pay for road and bridge construction. Toll roads are under construction in Texas, West Virginia, and North Carolina. More regions are looking into congestion pricing. In August the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority doubled the toll on the Claiborne Pell Bridge. And just as drivers will pay more to drive, businesses will pay more to burn fuel. Whether it's through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, economists, politicians, and energy-industry executives agree that Americans will soon pay a price to engage in an activity that has been free since the beginning of time: polluting. This may be the era of the free lunch, as Anderson suggests. But diners may have to pay for the silverware.