“I, Pencil”: A Pointed Little Tale of Economic Wisdom

pencil good

Do you know how to make a pencil?

You know: those classic yellow wooden #2 pencils that most of us over 30 grew up with? Surely something which has been around for so long, yet which even today can be purchased with just a few pennies, must also be cheap and simple to make.

But you know better than that, don’t you? Even considering that there are only four basic parts–the wood, the graphite, the metal ferrule and the eraser–there is obviously a tremendous amount of specialization involved in gathering all the ingredients and assembling them into a marketable, affordable product.

No one person could possibly do it.

Yet if the government decided that the pencil industry was grievously mismanaged (pencil factories have wood shavings on the floors!, yellow is a racist color!, those sharpened points are dangerous!!) and announced it was taking charge…many would claim that was a good thing, as has been claimed so many times before.

After all, none of us could do any better. If the government can solve the problem, we should let them.


thomas_sowellColumnist Thomas Sowell, in his August 7 editorial, “Busybody Politics”, observes that:

“Sometimes it seems as if there are more solutions than there are problems. On closer scrutiny, it turns out that many of today’s problems are a result of yesterday’s solutions.


A couple of weeks ago, my brother (JTR) suggested that I should read an essay entitled I, Pencil, by Leonard E. Read(You can read it too, by clicking on that link.) Mr. Read, a libertarian,  founded the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in 1946, “to promote the merits of free-market economics.”

God knows that I’m no economist. I suffered through one semester of Microeconomics in college, and that was enough for me. But I can appreciate truth well-told in a creative form. I, Pencil is a charming narrative, written first-person from the pencil’s point of view, which describes the vast interconnected network of people, tools, goods and services required to make the humble yellow pencil.

Whether you take the time to read the original essay or not, it is well worth six minutes of your time (actually, credits start rolling at 5:39) to watch the new movie version–the graphics and animation are elegant, simple and easy to understand…just like the pencil itself.

Leonard Read’s goal in writing his essay was to illustrate in a simple but compelling way that just as no one person in the world could make such a pencil single-handed, no one mastermind was responsible for coordinating the disparate parts of the process either. Rather, a miraculous “spontaneous order” occurs:

“…the configuration of creative human energies—millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human master-minding! 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.


But that doesn’t stop some people from trying to fix every “problem” that crops up in our society today.

Back to Thomas Sowell:

San Francisco and New York are both plagued with large “homeless” populations today, largely as a result of previous housing “reforms” that made housing more expensive, and severely limited how much housing, and of what kind, could be built.

Some other national “problems” may have occurred to you by now.  Say, for instance…education? Health care? Funding for the National Parks? How’s this for a prime governmental solution (again quoting Sowell):

no trash good“Right now, there are people inside and outside of government who are proposing new restrictions on how you may or may not visit the national parks that your taxes support. Among their proposals is doing away with trash cans in these parks, so that visitors have to take their trash out with them.

Just how they would enforce this, when millions of people are visiting places like Yosemite or Yellowstone, is something the busybodies need not bother to think through — much less pay a price, when trash simply accumulates in these parks after trash cans are removed.”

Is there nothing that our officious officials find too big for their hubris to handle?  No limit to their overwhelming impulse to meddle and “improve” things…as long as the results cause no detriment to them personally?

What our government has lost long ago, we as a people are losing daily: Leonard Read calls it our “faith in free people”–our understanding that the mutually beneficial connectivity of the free market is not only possible but probable, as long as government does not interfere.  

Thomas Sowell also sees our plight as an accelerating loss of liberty.

“Our schools and colleges are turning out people who cannot feel fulfilled unless they are telling other people what to do. The price of their self-indulgence is the sacrifice of our freedom.

If we don’t defend ourselves against them, who will?”

Be warned: Americans need to speak out against the persistent meddling of our Nanny Government before it’s too late, and we’re stuck with red-white-and-blue pencils which no longer write.

US pencil good

11 responses to ““I, Pencil”: A Pointed Little Tale of Economic Wisdom

  1. livinrightinpgh

    In times past, the U.S. Congress met for very abbreviated periods of time. Important issues were addressed and dealt with. In fact, the original text of the Constitution- from the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia- only stated that the Congress should get together at least once in every year on the first Monday in December.

    Granted, we’ve grown as a Nation since then, but the concept of “limited government” has given way to the “nanny-state” that you describe. The result? Ridiculous laws and regulations that defy the continuity of logic AND infringe on our basic rights and freedoms. Today’s laws seem to follow either a knee-jerk reaction to some publicized event or an ideology that serves special interest groups rather than the Country as a whole.

  2. Another excellent post. It’s amazing, considering how simple basic economics is to understand, that most people are functionally illiterate in this arena, which explains why politicians so easily manipulate public opinion.

    • I know my sister will reply here fairly soon, Rick, but I’ll only add to your statement:
      Yes. Exactly correct.

      Which, BTW, was why I suggested she read the ‘I, Pencil‘ essay in the first place. Knowing she doesn’t gravitate towards the topic, I figured she’d have a different (and probably wonderful) take on it than I would.

      And, of course, she did.

    • Thanks, Rick…and thanks to my brother for recommending the essay to me. That film version deserves to go viral, so we’re doing our part! Here’s hoping we can make a dent in the illiteracy.

  3. Great job with this, Sis, …although hardly unexpected.

    Wadda ya think: some Hayek next??


  4. You should totally read some Hayek next. 🙂 “I, Pencil” was one of my first introductions to serious economic reading and it’s been a basis ever since. So much truth in a short essay.

    And you’re probably right that it’s only a matter of time before yellow is a racist color. 🙂

  5. I saw the “I Pencil” story a while back. Fascinating!

  6. Pingback: #CommonCore is not the problem; the IDEA of Common Core is the problem… | Two Heads are Better Than One

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