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.
- 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) ↩