Topical Quote about creating jobs by digging with spoons instead of shovels (William Aberhart 1935, Milton Friedman 2008)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Wed Oct 5 13:55:32 UTC 2011

Policies for job creation are in the news. The Wall Street Journal
mentioned a quotation attributed to Milton Friedman that I was asked
about. The earliest cite I have located is dated 1935 and points to a
Canadian politician named William Aberhart of the Social Credit Party
and not Friedman. Here is the WSJ mention followed by selected
citations in chronological order.

Any citation before 1935 would be welcome. Also any attribution to
Milton Friedman before 2008 would be interesting.

Cite: 2011 September 8, Wall Street Journal, Section: Opinion, Why the
Stimulus Failed, Page A14, New York. (ProQuest)

<Begin excerpt>
The famous Milton Friedman line about government ordering people to
dig with spoons to employ more people comes to mind.
<End excerpt>

Cite: 1935 May 18, Lethbridge Herald, 5,500 Hear Social Credit
Expounded By Party Leader, Page 3, Column 2, Lethbridge, Alberta.

<Begin excerpt>
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.
<End excerpt>

Cite: 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 accessed 2011
October 5)

<Begin excerpt>
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.
<End excerpt>

Cite: 1967 May 3, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, Lords Sitting,
Industrial Relations, Speaking: Lord Ritchie-Calder, HL Deb 03, vol
282, cc983-1068. (Accessed on 2011
September 23)

<Begin excerpt>
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".
<End excerpt>

Cite: 1996 November 30, Cato Journal, Jobs Creation and Government
Policy by Jerry L. Jordan, [Article appeared on on February
18, 2003], Cato Institute, Washington, D.C. (Website accessed
2011 October 5)

<Begin excerpt>
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
<End excerpt>

Below is the earliest cite I have located that attributes the saying
to Milton Friedman.

Year: 2008
Title: The end of prosperity: how higher taxes will doom the
economy--if we let it happen
Authors: Arthur B. Laffer, Stephen Moore, Peter J. Tanous
Page: 204
Publisher: Threshold Editions, Simon and Schuster, New York.
(Google Books preview)

<Begin excerpt>
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:' The point is that with shovels these men would have jobs,
but they would never be productive and never be highly paid.
<End excerpt>


The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list