When I first learned that yesterday, March 30, was National Pencil Day, my thoughts immediately went to an essay I had read years and years ago that is still as true (maybe more so) today as it was when its author wrote it 59 years ago.
The essay to which I refer is “I, Pencil” by Leonard Read, originally published in the December 1959 issue of the economics journal The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty. Read was for many years president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), which was based at that time in Irvington, New York. It has since relocated to Atlanta and is headed by Lawrence Reed.
So what’s so great about this little essay? It is written in the first person from a pencil’s point of view and describes the infinite complexities involved in producing something as simple and commonplace as a pencil. Read identified all of the components included in that pencil (wood, graphite, pumice, wax, glue, lacquer, ferrule, factice, etc.) and how many people are involved in making that little implement. His list includes everyone down to the lighthouse keeper who ensures the safe arrival in port of the shipment of raw materials required for production of each part and even the janitor who is charged with keeping the factory clean and safe so that production can continue.
The conclusion reached is that no single person can make something as simple as a pencil, or even know how to do all of the steps required in the process. Rather, it requires multitudes of people, each exercising his or her unique knowledge and skills at each step of the way, combining with the work of thousands of other people to produce the final product. And they do it all without a master mind (i.e., government) telling them what or how to do any of it. Instead, they are all following an “invisible hand” and using their individual gifts and talents and genius to fit together little individual pieces of the puzzle.
The pencil concludes, “Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.”
Then the pencil reveals the big lesson to be learned from its “autobiography”: Get the government out of the creative process. “Leave all creative energies uninhibited. . . . Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed.” (You can read or listen to the entire essay at www.fee.org/resources/i-pencil-audio-pdf-and-html http://www.mises.org/library/i-pencil).
I began reading the works of Leonard Read when I was only a ninth or tenth grader, and among those readings was “I, Pencil.” Read’s writings, in turn, introduced me to the work of Ludwig von Mises. So when I found myself in a college economics course that required Mises’s Human Action as the textbook and other students struggled, I had a head start over them. Although I had to read with his tome in one hand and a dictionary in the other, I could understand what I was reading whereas other much smarter students couldn’t because they had never even heard of Mises. Read, on the other hand, although promoting essentially the same principles as Mises, “put the cookies on the bottom shelf,” where everyone could understand them.
It was also through the encouragement of FEE’s Paul Poirot, the long-time editor of The Freeman, that I was first published in 1981, beginning a new career that supplemented my teaching career. My essay “Help Wanted: Laborers” was the first of about a dozen articles published in The Freeman over the years (http://www.fee.org/people/dennis-l-peterson), and many of them subsequently were included in anthologies, textbooks, and other magazines.
I remember having once seen a photo of Ronald Reagan on Air Force One reading a copy of The Freeman while Nancy slept on his shoulder. Many of my articles appeared in that publication during his presidency, and I’ve often fantasized that maybe, just maybe, he was reading one of my essays when that photo was taken, and maybe I played some small role in helping shape his thinking and policies. (Or, more likely, maybe it was one of my essays that put Nancy to sleep!) I’ll never know.
But what I do know is that FEE, Paul Poirot, and Leonard Read greatly influenced my political and economic views. And all of us together have been like the multitude of workers who simply did their part, used their God-given talents and knowledge, and, doing so, “made a pencil.”