Category Archives: William F. Buckley Jr.

The Trouble with Socialism Is Socialism; the Trouble with Capitalism is Capitalists

William F. Buckley Jr.? William Schlamm? Winston Churchill? Herbert Hoover?

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Dear Quote Investigator: I have heard a humorous saying that compares two major economic systems:

The problem with socialism is socialism. The problem with capitalism is capitalists.

These words have been attributed to conservative commentator William F Buckley Jr. and British statesman Winston Churchill. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a profile of William F Buckley Jr. published in “Esquire” magazine in 1961. Buckley believed that socialism was a flawed economic system, but he also found fault with individual capitalists. He felt that the magazine he founded called “National Review” deserved greater financial support from business people, and he blamed “just plain stinginess”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Mr. Buckley paused a moment, then quoted an adage someone had told him that he felt summed up the problem: “The trouble with socialism is socialism; the trouble with capitalism is capitalists.”

This instance used the word “trouble” instead of “problem”. The context indicated that Buckley was not claiming credit for the expression. During the following decades he employed it multiple times, and in 1978 he ascribed the words to William Schlamm (Willi Schlamm), a European journalist who had worked with Buckley in the early years of the “National Review”.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1961 January 1, Esquire: The Magazine for Men, Volume 55, Number 1, William F. Buckley, Jr.: Portrait of a Complainer by Dan Wakefield, Start Page 49, Quote Page 50, Column 1, Esquire Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)

A Shortage of Sand in the Sahara

Milton Friedman? William F. Buckley Jr.? French Sage? Alfred E. Kahn? Anonymous?

desert10Dear Quote Investigator: The well-known economist Milton Friedman was often critical of governmental power. The following saying has been attributed to him:

If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there’d be a shortage of sand.

I have been unable to find a precise citation for this statement. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1980 Milton Friedman wrote a partially matching statement in his “Newsweek” column that included the thematic phrase about Saharan sand, and he expressed a comparable attitude. A detailed citation is given further below.

The earliest instance of the vivid phrase “shortage of sand in the Sahara” located by QI was printed in 1951 in “Labour” magazine which was issued by the Trades Union Congress in London. A group of workers from Birmingham visited Sweden and were hosted by the Gothenburg Trades Council. The visitors commented on a shortage of timber; however, the overall context did not disparage government: 1

The visitors were not surprised to find a housing shortage in Sweden; they knew before they went that the problem was world-wide. What they were surprised to find was a shortage of timber. “It sounds like a shortage of sand in the Sahara,” they commented. Then it was explained that the Swedish home market was going short to enable the country to export much of its valuable timber.

In 1971 the conservative magazine editor and commentator William F. Buckley Jr. published “Cruising Speed: A Documentary” which recorded in diary form the incidents and events in Buckley’s life during one week in November 1970. Buckley relayed a joke castigating communism: 2

Curiously, the failures of Communism are more often treated as a joke than as a tragedy. (As in the current jollity: What would happen if the Communists occupied the Sahara? Answer: Nothing—for 50 years. Then there would be a shortage of sand.)

This was the earliest strongly matching instance of the quip found by QI. The target was not the U.S. government, but an archetypal communist government. The creator of the joke was anonymous, and the duration of the delay was 50 years instead of five.

During succeeding decades the barb has evolved and different governments have been excoriated. In addition, the time delay mentioned has varied.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1951 January, Labour: The TUC Magazine, Volume 1, Number 5 (Revised Series), ‘Brum’ men get litter lesson, Start Page 154, Quote Page 154, Column 1, Publisher by the Trades Union Congress, London, England. (Verified with scans; great thanks Bonnie Taylor-Blake and the University of North Carolina library system)
  2. 1971, Cruising Speed—A Documentary by William F. Buckley Jr., Quote Page 213, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified on paper)