What has a pencil to do with freedom?

Last year I read a marvelous essay simply titled, “I, Pencil.” The author is Leonard E. Read, founder of the Foundation of Economic Education (www.fee.org). I think local radio talk show host Chad Adams mentioned this on one of his shows this week. (link)

Knowledge of economics is sorely lacking in much of our American society. Mr. Read’s creative classic teaches a basic economic principle that we are “unhappily losing”— the vital importance of “dispersed knowledge” and freedom that allows us to innovate and prosper without central planning. That knowledge and free markets prompts individuals to do desirable things (that benefit many people) without anyone telling them what to do, as the famous economist F. A. Hayek taught.

Mr. Read, speaking as a pencil, describes its genealogy. It begins with harvesting, hauling and milling cedar trees from the Pacific Northwest; describing the labor, machines and power used in wood production. Then, to the pencil factory and the processes of crafting wood, graphite, chemicals, metals, waxes, lacquers, pumice and other compounds mined, gathered and transported from around the world; all the materials, labor and creativeness necessary to produce a functional and attractive pencil. Interesting, but what’s the point?

Although millions of people are involved in its creation, no one person has but a “tiny, infinitesimal bit of knowledge” about the making of a pencil. What’s more, few of them care about the product. “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,” says the “Pencil.”

So, why do people do these things? Each person involved is motivated to “exchange his tiny know-how for the goods and services he needs or wants,” writes Read. There is no human master-minding; no government rules or “fixes”—only the miracle of natural, spontaneous responses of humans to necessity and desire.

This, then, teaches why we must have faith in humans and their freedom. Free people will respond to all human needs and desires. Government monopolies and coercion only undermine and corrupt that human response.

Thanks to Wilmington, N. C. resident David Stallman (www.davidstallman.com) who sent me this wonderful reminder of why we must support and defend the American legacy of freedom—if we want to remain free.


About R. E. Smith Jr.

Mr. Smith writes essays and commentary on politics, American history, environment, higher education and culture. He's been published in print media and at blog sites for about 25 years. Smith's formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He has earned a 21-credit hour Certificate in Professional Writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Training/work experience: NYS Ranger School; U. S. Army, Corp of Engineers; soil scientist and forester with USDA; Assoc. Professor at SUNY; real estate agent; small business owner.
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