Milton Friedman? William F. Buckley Jr.? French Sage? Alfred E. Kahn? Anonymous?
Dear 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.
In January 1971 the periodical “Himmat: Asia’s Voice” based in Bombay, India printed an instance of the joke under the title “Dry humour” in a section of miscellaneous short items. The precise origin was unspecified, but the remark was reportedly transmitted through Moscow. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3
Here is another direct-from-Moscow Iron Curtain quip. Question: “What will happen when Communism comes to the Sahara?”
Answer: “Nothing for 50 years, and then there will be a shortage of sand.”
In April 1971 Buckley visited Tulane University, and he presented a version of the remark without attribution: 4
“It is safe to say that if the Communists took over the Sahara Desert tomorrow, two things would happen. First, nothing. And second, with their centralized approach to the market, there would be a shortage of sand.”
In June 1971 the popular syndicated columnist Leonard Lyons published an instance of the story and ascribed the punchline to an unnamed “industrialist”. The delay was reduced from fifty years to five in this version: 5
The story was told about an industrialist who was asked: “Suppose the Russians take over the Sahara desert?” He replied: “Then in five years, there’ll be a shortage of sand.”
In April 1972 a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors was held in Washington, D.C, and Buckley participated in a panel discussion. The conservative commentator ascribed the jest to a “French sage”: 6
Last year a French sage was asked the question, “What would happen if the Communists took over the Sahara Desert?” And he replied, “Nothing for 50 years. Then there will be a shortage of sand.”
In June 1972 a columnist in “The Hartford Courant” of Connecticut recounted an instance of tale without attribution: 7
Which recalls the familiar and not inappropriate story about what would happen if Soviet Russia were to gain possession of the Sahara desert. In the beginning (so the story goes) the Arab land-owning class would have to be liquidated. After that, nothing much would happen for twenty-odd years. And then a shortage of sand would begin to develop.
In 1975 Buckley continued to disseminate the quip via his syndicated newspaper column. He credited the punchline to the Speaker of the French Assembly: 8
“What would happen if the Soviet Union took over the Sahara?” the straight man asked in the French Assembly a few years ago. And the Speaker replied: “Nothing — for 50 years. Then there would be a shortage of sand.”
In 1980 the economist Milton Freidman wrote a column in ‘Newsweek” magazine that mentioned price regulation and gasoline restrictions in the Persian Gulf country of Dubai. The final sentence comically referred to an insufficiency of desert sand: 9 10
For variety, here is a news item from the Persian Gulf documenting an economic truth: “Dubai, Oct. 30: The petrol [gasoline] crisis in the northern emirate has become more acute and most filling stations have closed down … The three petrol distribution companies in the northern emirate … have sought the permission of the authorities concerned to increase petrol prices.”
Will we read next that government control of prices has created a shortage of sand in the Sahara?
Also in 1980 Alfred E. Kahn who was Chairman of the Council on Wage and Price Stability gave testimony during a U.S. congressional hearing. He was asked about his opposition to wage and price controls and recounted an anecdote set in Yugoslavia: 11
Mr. KAHN. It is a little bit like the people sitting in the cafe in Yugoslavia. One comrade said to the other, “What do you think would happen if socialism came to the Sahara?” The other said, “First nothing; then we would have a shortage of sand.” [Laughter.]
In 1983 “The Philadelphia Inquirer” printed remarks from a conservative magazine editor named William Rusher who ascribed to Milton Friedman an instance of the saying that was similar to the one under investigation: 12
The few conservatives on the panel made the point that big government had brought bureaucracy and red tape. William Rusher, the editor of the conservative National Review, quoted economist Milton Friedman as saying that “if the government were to take over the Sahara Desert, there would be a shortage of sand in five years.”
In conclusion, this saying has an anonymous origin. A precursor appeared in 1951 and a strong match was presented by William F. Buckley Jr. in a 1971 book although he disclaimed authorship of the joke. The early instances were about communist governments, and the quip evolved over time. In 1980 Milton Friedman published a simplified instance.
Image Notes: Desert caravan image from xisdom on Pixabay.
(Great thanks to the anonymous person whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Stephen Goranson and Bonnie Taylor-Blake for help in verifying two of the key citations on paper)
- 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) ↩
- 1971, Cruising Speed—A Documentary by William F. Buckley Jr., Quote Page 213, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1971 January 22, Himmat: Asia’s Voice, Volume 7, Number 12, Briefly Speaking: Dry Humour, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Himmat Weekly, Bombay, India. (Verified on paper; great thanks to Stephen Goranson and the Duke University library system) ↩
- 1971 April 22, Times-Picayune, Buckley Heard By Tulane Unit by John Roberts, Quote Page 22, Column 4, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1971 June 5, The San Mateo Times, Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 19, Column 5, San Mateo, California. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1972, Problems of Journalism: Proceedings of the 1972 Convention of American Society of Newspaper Editors (Meeting Held in Washington, D.C. on April 19 to 21, 1972), Session Held April 19: American Values on Trial: The System and the Search for Individuality, (Words spoken by William F. Buckley), Quote Page 33, Published by American Society of Newspaper Editors. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1972 June 9, The Hartford Courant, Same Anxieties Plague the World by Philip Wagner, Quote Page 18, Column 4, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1975 September 20, Boston Globe, Politicians to blame for oil prices by William F. Buckley Jr., Quote Page 9, Column 6, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1980 March 10, Newsweek, Things That Ain’t So by Milton Freidman, Quote Page 79, Column 3, Newsweek, Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- Website: Hoover Institution of Stanford University, Section: Rose and Milton Freidman, (Archive of Newsweek columns written by Milton Freidman), (PDF of article in Newsweek from March 10, 1980 appearing on page 79) (Accessed hoohila.stanford.edu on December 9, 2014) link ↩
- 1980, Congressional Hearing, House of Representatives, Ninety-Sixth Congress, Second Session, Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on the Treasury, Postal Service, and General Government Appropriations, Part 3, (Testimony of Alfred E. Kahn, Chairman Council on Wage and Price Stability Before the House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Treasury, Postal Service, General Government, on March 31, 1980), Start Page 228, Quote Page 249, Published by U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (HathiTrust Full View) link link ↩
- 1983 March 6, Philadelphia Inquirer, FDR Legacy: New Deal Still Big Deal in Formulation of Domestic Policy by Julia Cass, Quote Page G3, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (ProQuest) ↩