There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Milton Friedman? Robert Heinlein? Robert G. Ingersoll? Michael Montague? Walter Morrow? John Madden? Harley L. Lutz? Pierre Dos Utt? Leonard P. Ayres? Jake Falstaff? Herman Fetzer? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Today many goods and services are available for free especially via the internet. However, the true cost is usually not zero. Subsidies, indirect costs, and displaced costs are sometimes difficult to fully discern. A well-known acerbic economic adage reflects a skeptical attitude:

There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

This phrase is sometimes presented as an initialism: tanstaafl. The prominent economist Milton Friedman and the famous science fiction author Robert Heinlein both employed this expression, but I do not believe that either one coined it. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: During the nineteenth and early twentieth century many saloons in the United States offered a midday buffet selection of gratis food to customers who purchased at least one drink. The saloonkeepers hoped to increase the number of clients and the amount of alcohol purchased. The “free lunch” food functioned as a loss leader.

Robert Heinlein did use the expression under investigation in his 1966 novel “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress”. Also, Milton Friedman was credited with the saying by 1969, and he used an instance as the title of a book in 1975. But the saying was already in circulation.

The earliest known instance that matched the modern economic sense appeared as the punchline of a fable published in June 1938. Journalist Walter Morrow is currently the leading candidate for creator of this fable. Details are given further below within the following collection of selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

A Shortage of Sand in the Sahara

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.

Continue reading A Shortage of Sand in the Sahara


  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)

If You Want Jobs Then Give These Workers Spoons Instead of Shovels

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.

Continue reading If You Want Jobs Then Give These Workers Spoons Instead of Shovels


  1. 2011 September 8, Wall Street Journal, Section: Opinion, Why the Stimulus Failed, Page A14, New York. (ProQuest) link
  2. 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 accessed 2011 October 10) link
  3. 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)