Jewish World Review
July 10, 2000 / 7 Tamuz, 5760
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE MOST VALUABLE TRUTHS about economics and liberty can be found in a lowly lead pencil. When my children are old enough, I will read them a classic little essay by the late philosopher Leonard E. Read that turns a mundane writing instrument into an elementary lesson about free-market capitalism.
"I, Pencil" teaches what left-wing fossils on college campuses to this day refuse to admit: Governments and bureaucrats don't make what people want and need. They only get in the way. It is individuals, cooperating peacefully and voluntarily, working together without mandate or central design, who produce the world's goods and services.
"I have a profound lesson to teach," Read writes in the voice of the pencil. "And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because--well, because I am seemingly so simple. Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me."
Read traces the rich, deep genealogy of the metaphorical little pencil – from the loggers who harvest its cedar wood grown in Oregon, to the millworkers in San Leandro, California, who cut the wood into thin slats, to the railroad employees who transport the wood across the country, to the graphite miners in Ceylon and refinery workers in Mississippi, to the farmers in the Dutch East Indies who produce an oil used to make erasers.
All these people, and many more at the periphery of the process, have special knowledge about their life's work in their separate corners of the earth. But none by himself has the singular knowledge or ability to give birth to a pencil. Few will ever come in contact with the others who make the production of that pencil possible. It's not because they "care about each other" that they cooperate to deliver any one good. It's the result of self-interest, multiplied millions of times over.
As Read explains it: "Neither the worker in the oil field nor the chemist nor the digger of graphite or clay nor any who mans or makes the ships or trains or trucks nor the one who runs the machine that does the knurling on my bit of metal nor the president of the company performs his singular task because he wants me….Indeed, there are some among this vast multitude who never saw a pencil nor would they know how to use one. Their motivation is other than me. Perhaps it is something like this: Each of these millions sees that he can thus exchange his tiny know-how for the goods and services he needs or wants."
This spontaneous "configuration of human energies" is repeated endlessly and apparent, even to a child's naked eye. Think of the countless and diverse people involved in producing a Slinky, jump rope, or baseball – let alone a diaper, refrigerator, desktop computer, or Boeing 747.
Read, who established the Foundation for Economic Education, pushes the lesson of pencil further. "There is a fact still more astounding: The absence of a master mind, of anyone dictating or forcibly directing these countless actions which bring me into being. No trace of such a person can be found. Instead, we find the Invisible Hand at work." Appreciating that phenomenon, Read argues, is key to possessing "an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: a faith in free people. Freedom is impossible without this faith."
Without it, we are susceptible to the arrogance of small minds and the force of master planners. I don't want my children to believe Bill Clinton – or anyone else -- who claims he alone can "grow the economy. " I don't want them to believe that Al Gore created the Internet. I don't want them to react passively when governments forcibly impose monopolies on creative activity.
The public schools, just such a monopoly, do a miserable job of planting the seeds of faith in freedom. "I, Pencil" is an antidote for the economic ignorance that plagues too many children and too many adults who take small miracles for granted.
Read's essay can be viewed in its entirety by clicking here.
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