Milton Friedman? William Aberhart? Unemployed Worker? Businessman in China? UK Minister of Agriculture?
Dear Quote Investigator: In 2011 an editorial in the Wall Street Journal mentioned a quotation that apparently is well-known: 1
The famous Milton Friedman line about government ordering people to dig with spoons to employ more people comes to mind.
The image of people digging with spoons is quite striking, but I am not familiar with this saying. Could you explore this topic and tell me what Friedman said?
Quote Investigator: This quotation is usually coupled with a colorful anecdote, but the details of the stories vary greatly. Here is an account from the economics writer Stephen Moore that was printed in the Wall Street Journal in 2009. Moore stated that he used to visit Milton Friedman and his wife, and together they would dine at a favorite Chinese restaurant: 2
At one of our dinners, Milton recalled traveling to an Asian country in the 1960s and visiting a worksite where a new canal was being built. He was shocked to see that, instead of modern tractors and earth movers, the workers had shovels. He asked why there were so few machines. The government bureaucrat explained: “You don’t understand. This is a jobs program.” To which Milton replied: “Oh, I thought you were trying to build a canal. If it’s jobs you want, then you should give these workers spoons, not shovels.”
Different versions of this tale are based in distinct locales that span the globe, e.g., India, China, England and Canada. The person delivering the trenchant commentary also varies and has included: the noted economist Milton Friedman, an unemployed worker in England, a businessman touring China, a UK Minister of Agriculture, and a Canadian politician named William Aberhart.
The earliest instance of this anecdote type that QI has located was printed in 1935 in a Canadian newspaper, the Lethbridge Herald. The politician William Aberhart of the Social Credit party in Alberta was described as unhappy because government building projects were not using modern large-scale machines. Aberhart delivered a humorous version of the remark with the phrase “spoons and forks”: 3
Taking up the policy of a public works program as a solution for unemployment, it was criticized as a plan that took no account of the part that machinery played in modern construction, with a road-making machine instanced as an example. He saw, said Mr. Aberhart, work in progress at an airport and was told that the men were given picks and shovels in order to lengthen the work, to which he replied why not give them spoons and forks instead of picks and shovels if the object was to lengthen out the task.
Thus, there is evidence that the core of the anecdote and remark were in circulation before the 1960s. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
On September 13, 1935 William Aberhart gave a speech to the Canadian Club in Toronto. He recounted an anecdote in which he delivered a version of the saying: 4
One of the school graduates came to me to pay his respects to the school; he told me he was in charge of helping on one of the Dominion air ports. I said to him, “I suppose you use modern machinery in your air ports?”
“Well,” he said, “if we used modern machinery in the establishment of air ports there would be very little need of men to help us to do it, for they would do it so rapidly and easily that there would be no need of man labour. We give them picks and shovels and put them out to do it in the old-fashioned way.”
I smiled and said to him: “It would probably be just as well to give them spoons and forks; it would take them still longer to do it.” It seemed to me so ridiculous; we let modern machinery rust at the road side or air port and make those men bend their backs in order to give them the purchasing power to buy the necessities of life, and hardly that.
In 1966 a variant of the story was told in the Irish Parliament. The orator referred to an earlier incident that he said took place in the Parliament of the United Kingdom: 5
Mr. N. Lemass: … Earl Attlee at one time suggested in the British House of Commons that instead of giving farmers tractors, they should be given shovels, thereby employing ten men instead of one, but the then Minister of Agriculture said: “Why not go further and give them spoons, thereby employing 100 men?” That is not the solution. The farming community cannot sustain as many people, if there is to be a more equitable distribution of our national wealth, and if the people living on the land are to have the high standard of living we would desire for them.
In 1967 a member of the House of Lords of the UK Parliament recounted an instance of the story. The central incisive comment was pronounced by an unidentified unemployed man who suggested using an even smaller implement, a tea spoon: 6
LORD RITCHIE-CALDER: … On another occasion, a crowd of unemployed workers was standing on the edge of a cutting at Park Royal—the underground was pushing out to Osterley—and they were watching a huge muck-shifter scooping up tons of rubble at a bite. One unemployed man said bitterly, “If it were not for that damn machine there would be hundreds of jobs for men with picks and shovels.” “Yes, mate,” said another unemployed man, “or for millions of men with tea spoons”.
In 1996 an instance of the anecdote appeared in an article by Jerry L. Jordan in the Cato Journal of the Cato Institute, a prominent libertarian think-tank. The cogent remark was delivered by a businessman visiting China: 7
I am reminded of a story that a businessman told me a few years ago. While touring China, he came upon a team of nearly 100 workers building an earthen dam with shovels. The businessman commented to a local official that, with an earth-moving machine, a single worker could create the dam in an afternoon. The official’s curious response was, “Yes, but think of all the unemployment that would create.” “Oh,” said the businessman, “I thought you were building a dam. If it’s jobs you want to create, then take away their shovels and give them spoons!”
In 1997 the pundit James K. Glassman wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post that referred to the 1996 Cato Journal article. He repeated the anecdote told by Jerry Jordan and noted that Jordan was president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland at that time. 8
In 2007 a version of the story was published in the popular London-based magazine The Economist. The journalist evinced uncertainty about the tale which featured an unnamed economist as the principal character: 9
The make-work bias is best illustrated by a story, perhaps apocryphal, of an economist who visits China under Mao Zedong. He sees hundreds of workers building a dam with shovels. He asks: “Why don’t they use a mechanical digger?” “That would put people out of work,” replies the foreman. “Oh,” says the economist, “I thought you were making a dam. If it’s jobs you want, take away their shovels and give them spoons.”
In 2008 the story appeared in a book by Arthur B. Laffer, Stephen Moore, and Peter J. Tanous. This is the first citation located by QI that connects Friedman to the anecdote. It is the same basic story as the one told by Moore in 2009 that is presented at the beginning of this article. One additional detail is given. The country is identified as India: 10
Our friend the late Milton Friedman once told us a story of being in India in the 1960s and watching thousands of workers build a canal with shovels. Milton asked the lead engineer, Why don’t you have tractors to help build this canal? The engineer replied: “You don’t understand, Mr. Friedman, this canal is a jobs program to provide work for as many men as possible.” Milton responded with his classic wit, “Oh, I see. I thought you were trying to build a canal. If you really want to create jobs, then by all means give these men spoons, not shovels.”
In May 2009 the Wall Street Journal published an article by Stephen Moore in which he described hearing the anecdote directly from Milton Friedman while dining with him. The details were given previously in this article. 11
In December 2009 the prominent political commentator George Will appeared on the ABC television program called “This Week”. He presented a version of the tale and attributed the spoons remark to Friedman: 12
George Will: It put me in mind of a great story Milton Friedman used to tell. He went to Asia in the 1960s and was proudly taken by the government to see a public works project. They were building a canal. He was struck everyone was digging the canal with shovels. Friedman says, why no heavy earth-moving equipment?
They said, oh, this is a jobs program. So Friedman says, why don’t you give them spoons instead of shovels? (LAUGHTER) I think we understand, now, the sterility of government trying to create jobs.
In September 2011 the Wall Street Journal referred to the “famous Milton Friedman line about government ordering people to dig with spoons to employ more people”. This citation was mentioned by the questioner and provided the initial impetus for this investigation.
In conclusion, this compelling anecdote has many variants. The primary image of replacing the shovels of workers with spoons is very memorable. The acerbic humor touches on deeper issues of efficiency, productivity, and the purpose of human labor.
It is possible that the line about spoons was used on more than one occasion by more than one person. Moore has testified that Friedman told a version of the story. It is possible that Friedman independently crafted the line about spoons, or he may have heard it initially from someone else. In any case, QI believes based on current evidence that the basic tale originated with William Aberhart and he should be given the credit.
Image Notes: Portrait of Milton Friedman from The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Portrait of William Aberhart from the Provincial Archives of Alberta. Both images accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Shovel and spoon illustrations from OpenClipart-Vectors at Pixabay.
Update history: On October 12, 2011 the citation for The Economist magazine in 2007 was added to the post. On October 11, 2012 the citation for the speech given by William Aberhart on September 13, 1935 was added to the post. Also, the notes were switched to a numerical system. On November 14, 2016 the header picture was updated.
- 2011 September 8, Wall Street Journal, Section: Opinion, Why the Stimulus Failed, Page A14, New York. (ProQuest) link ↩
- 2009 May 29, Wall Street Journal, De Gustibus: Missing Milton: Who Will Speak For Free Markets? by Stephen Moore, Section Opinion, Page W.13, New York. (ProQuest) (Also website online.wsj.com accessed 2011 October 10) link ↩
- 1935 May 18, Lethbridge Herald, 5,500 Hear Social Credit Expounded By Party Leader, Start Page 1, [Continuation title on page 3: “5500 Hear”], Quote Page 3, Column 2, Lethbridge, Alberta (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1991, Aberhart: Outpourings and Replies, Edited by David R. Elliott, [William Aberhart, “Social Credit” Speech to the Canadian Club, Toronto, on September 13, 1935, Proceedings of the Canadian Club (Toronto 1935), pp. 47-59.] Start Page 148, Quote Page 150 and 151, Alberta Records Publication Board, Historical Society of Alberta, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Verified on paper; Thanks to the Duke University Perkins Library) ↩
- 1966 March 22, Dail Eireann [Irish Parliamentary Debates], Topic: Committee on Finance. – Resolution No. 12: General (Resumed), Speaking: Mr. N. Lemass, Page 65 of 77, Volume 221, Number 12, Irish Free State, Oireachtas. (Website debates.oireachtas.ie accessed 2011 October 5) link ↩
- 1967 May 3, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, Lords Sitting, Industrial Relations, Speaking: Lord Ritchie-Calder, HL Deb 03, volume 282, cc983-1068. (Accessed hansard.millbanksystems.com on 2011 September 23) link ↩
- 1996 November 30, Cato Journal, Jobs Creation and Government Policy by Jerry L. Jordan, [Article appeared on cato.org on February 18, 2003], Cato Institute, Washington, D.C. (Website cato.org accessed 2011 October 5) link ↩
- 1997 July 1, Washington Post, Why We Trade by James K. Glassman, Section OP/ED, Page A19, Washington, D.C. (NewsBank) ↩
- 2007 June 16, The Economist, United States: Lexington: “Vote for me, dimwit”, Page 42, Volume 383, Economist Newspaper, Ltd., London. (Verified with microfiche) ↩
- 2008, The End of Prosperity by Arthur B. Laffer, Stephen Moore, and Peter J. Tanous Page 204, Threshold Editions of Simon and Schuster, New York. (Google Books preview) ↩
- 2009 May 29, Wall Street Journal, De Gustibus: Missing Milton: Who Will Speak For Free Markets? by Stephen Moore, Section Opinion, Page W.13, New York. (ProQuest) (Also website online.wsj.com accessed 2011 October 10) link. ↩
- 2009 December 13, ABC News ‘This Week’ Full Transcript, This Week with George Stephanopoulos, ABC News Internet Ventures. (Website abcnews.go.com accessed 2011 October 10) ↩