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.
- 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) ↩