I, Pencil

Humans have voluntarily traded with each other for individual mutual benefit since the dawn of history. Not only is there nothing immoral or unethical about this, but in fact, it serves as evidence that humanity may quite possibly be ready to evolve beyond the wreched impulses to enslave, control, and dominate. As long as the perception for omnipotent rulers are necessary to “protect us from ourselves” is eventually recognized as a nothing more than a fiction, then the evolution of human liberty will continue.
 

 
Many political dissidents, including most constitutionalists, don’t really understand how the free market actually works. This, combined with the mainline public’s misconceptions about economics more generally, is what led to the founding of the Foundation for Economic Education by Leonard Reed in March of 1946 (which, interestingly enough, is also during the exact same time as the passage of the Administrative Procedures Act). In a brilliant stroke against New Deal agencies, Reed explained the free market from the point of view of a simple pencil.

Several economic principles are highlighted in the pencil’s narrative about its genealogy. First up is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which, simply put, means that there are some things we don’t or can’t know, whether it be future trends or a particular refinement process in the mixing of graphite with clay using ammonium hydroxide. This serves the basis for why the pencil said that not one individual knows how to make any pencil from start to finish, not even the president of the pencil company. Despite this, the invisible hand of the market is able to produce pencils for sale through the spontaneous order of human action.

Because it is impossible for any one individual to know the intricate details of how such spontaneous human action can cumulative lead to a technology as simple as a manufactured pencil, is why government central planning suffers from the economic calculation problem. Bureaucrats and legislators are not supermen, and as such, they too cannot possibly understand, much less calculate, how a damn pencil is (or should be) made. Central planning could be said to be a fatal conceit, as is the “regulatory authority” of the Administrative Agencies charged with the mission to forcibly intervene in the market. People who still persist in erroneously believing in the alleged necessity for rulemaking need look no father than regulatory capture.

Leonard Reed’s I, Pencil is a brilliant introductory essay into laissez-faire (and is also available as a 15 minute audiobook podcast). Those people who ask the disingenuous question of “Without government, who will build the roads?,” might as well be asking the question “Without slavery, who will pick the cotton?” The answer to both is the same: Let the market decide. And what the market eventually decided to do was invent huge machines to pick the cotton. Regardless, a lack of technology with regards to some concern in the present should never be used as an excuse for tyranny. Whether central planning comes from a slave-master, or a bureaucrat, makes no damn difference at all. As Reed’s pencil finally remarked:

The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited. Merely organize society to act in harmony with this lesson. Let society’s legal apparatus remove all obstacles the best it can. Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed. I, Pencil, seemingly simple though I am, offer the miracle of my creation as testimony that this is a practical faith, as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, [and] the good earth.

21 thoughts on “I, Pencil

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