#### TL;DR This essay - first published in 1958 - gives a wonder...
Leonard Edward Read was the founder and President of the Foundation...
Here is a video of Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman talking about the...
The same argument could have been given by writing a different essa...
"Make" isn't strong enough to carry this sentence; "manufacture" is...
> there’s some wood, lacquer, the printed labeling, graphite lead, ...
> *Think of all the persons and the numberless skills that went int...
The division of labor is the separation of complex production tasks...
> *Here is an astounding fact: Neither the worker in the oil field ...
The Invisible Hand is a metaphor describing the ***unintended great...
A great video about "I, Pencil" [![](https://i.imgur.com/WSEMnDy...
I'm not sure how this advances the author's point (I probably don't...
Passing lightly over the (presumably non-trivial) equivalence betwe...
> *The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies ...
I, Pencil
My Family Tree as told to Leonard E. Read
I am a lead pencil—the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to
all boys and girls and adults who can read and write.
Writing is both my vocation and my avocation; thats all I do.
You may wonder why I should write a genealogy. Well, to
begin with, my story is interesting. And, next, I am a mystery
—more so than a tree or a sunset or even a ash of lightning.
But, sadly, I am taken for granted by those who use me, as if I
were a mere incident and without background. This supercilious
aitude relegates me to the level of the commonplace. This is a
species of the grievous error in which mankind cannot too long
persist without peril. For, the wise G. K. Chesterton observed,
“We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.”
I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and
awe, a claim I shall aempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand
me—no, thats too much to ask of anyone—if you can become
aware of the miraculousness
which I symbolize, you can help
save the freedom mankind is
so unhappily losing. I have a
profound lesson to teach. And I
can teach this lesson beer 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. This sounds fantastic, doesn’t it?
Especially when it is realized that there are about one and one-
half billion of my kind produced in the U.S.A. each year.
Pick me up and look me over. What do you see? Not much
4
If you can
become aware of
the miraculousness
which I symbolize,
you can help
save the freedome
mankind is so
unhappily losing.
meets the eye—theres some wood, lacquer, the printed labeling,
graphite lead, a bit of metal, and an eraser.
INNUMERABLE ANTECEDENTS
Just as you cannot trace your family tree back very far, so is
it impossible for me to name and explain all my antecedents. But
I would like to suggest enough of them to impress upon you the
richness and complexity of my background.
My family tree begins with what in fact is a tree, a cedar of
straight grain that grows in Northern California and Oregon. Now
contemplate all the saws and trucks and rope and the countless
other gear used in harvesting and carting the cedar logs to the
railroad siding. Think of all the persons and the numberless skills
that went into their fabrication: the mining of ore, the making of
steel and its renement into saws, axes, motors; the growing of
hemp and bringing it through all the stages to heavy and strong
rope; the logging camps with their beds and mess halls, the
cookery and the raising of all the foods. Why, untold thousands of
persons had a hand in every cup of coee the loggers drink!
The logs are shipped to a mill in San Leandro, California.
Can you imagine the individuals who make at cars and
rails and railroad engines and who construct and install the
communication systems incidental thereto? These legions are
among my antecedents.
Consider the millwork in San Leandro. The cedar logs are
cut into small, pencil-length slats less than one-fourth of an
inch in thickness. These are kiln dried and then tinted for the
same reason women put rouge on their faces. People prefer that
I look prey, not a pallid white. The slats are waxed and kiln
dried again. How many skills went into the making of the tint
and the kilns, into supplying the heat, the light and power, the
belts, motors, and all the other things a mill requires? Sweepers
in the mill among my ancestors? Yes, and included are the men
who poured the concrete for the dam of a Pacic Gas & Electric
Company hydroplant which supplies the mill’s power!
Don’t overlook the ancestors present and distant who have a
5
hand in transporting sixty carloads of slats across the nation.
Once in the pencil factory—$4,000,000 in machinery and
building, all capital accumulated by thriy and saving parents
of mine—each slat is given eight grooves by a complex machine,
aer which another machine lays leads in every other slat, applies
glue, and places another slat atop—a lead sandwich, so to speak.
Seven brothers and I are mechanically carved from this “wood-
clinched” sandwich.
My “leaditself—it contains no lead at all—is complex. The
graphite is mined in Ceylon [Sri Lanka]. Consider these miners
and those who make their many tools and the makers of the paper
sacks in which the graphite is shipped and those who make the
string that ties the sacks and those who put them aboard ships
and those who make the ships. Even the lighthouse keepers along
the way assisted in my birth—and the harbor pilots.
The graphite is mixed with clay from Mississippi in which
ammonium hydroxide is used in the rening process. Then
weing agents are added such as
sulfonated tallow—animal fats
chemically reacted with sulfuric
acid. Aer passing through
numerous machines, the mixture
nally appears as endless
extrusions—as from a sausage
grinder—cut to size, dried, and
baked for several hours at 1,850
degrees Fahrenheit. To increase
their strength and smoothness
the leads are then treated with
a hot mixture which includes
candelilla wax from Mexico, paran wax, and hydrogenated
natural fats.
My cedar receives six coats of lacquer. Do you know all the
ingredients of lacquer? Who would think that the growers of
castor beans and the reners of castor oil are a part of it? They
are.
Observe the labeling. That’s a lm formed by applying heat
6
Why, even the
processes by which
the lacquer is made
a beautiful yellow
involve the skills of
more persons
than one can
enumerate.
to carbon black mixed with resins. How do you make resins and
what, pray, is carbon black? Why, even the processes by which
the lacquer is made a beautiful yellow involve the skills of
more persons than one can enumerate!
My bit of metal—the ferrule—is brass. Think of all the
persons who mine zinc and copper and those who have the skills
to make shiny sheet brass from these products of nature. Those
black rings on my ferrule are black nickel. What is black nickel
and how is it applied? The complete story of why the center of my
ferrule has no black nickel on it would take pages to explain.
Then theres my crowning glory, inelegantly referred to in the
trade as “the plug,” the part man uses to erase the errors he makes
with me. An ingredient called facticeis what does the erasing.
It is a rubber-like product made by reacting rapeseed oil from
the Dutch East Indies [Indonesia] with sulfur chloride. Rubber,
contrary to the common notion, is only for binding purposes.
Then, too, there are numerous vulcanizing and accelerating
agents. The pumice comes from Italy; and the pigment which
gives “the plug” its color is cadmium sulde.
NO ONE KNOWS
Does anyone wish to
challenge my earlier assertion
that no single person on the face
of this earth knows how to make
me?
Actually, millions of human
beings have had a hand in my
creation, no one of whom even
knows more than a very few of
the others. Now, you may say
that I go too far in relating the
picker of a coee berry in far-o
Brazil and food growers elsewhere to my creation; that this is an
extreme position. I shall stand by my claim. There isn’t a single
person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil
7
Actually,
millions of human
beings have had a
hand in my creation,
no one of whom
even knows more
than a very few of
the others.
company, who contributes more than a tiny, innitesimal bit of
know-how. From the standpoint of know-how the only dierence
between the miner of graphite in Ceylon and the logger in Oregon
is in the type of know-how. Neither the miner nor the logger can
be dispensed with, any more than can the chemist at the factory
or the worker in the oil eld—paran being a by-product of
petroleum.
Here is an astounding fact: Neither the worker in the oil eld
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. Each one wants me less, perhaps, than does a child in
the rst grade. 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. I
may or may not be among these items.
NO MASTER MIND
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 nd the Invisible Hand at work. This is the
mystery to which I earlier referred.
It has been said that “only God can make a tree.” Why do we
agree with this? Isn’t it because we realize that we ourselves could
not make one? Indeed, can we even describe a tree? We cannot,
except in supercial terms. We can say, for instance, that a certain
molecular conguration manifests itself as a tree. But what mind
is there among men that could even record, let alone direct, the
constant changes in molecules that transpire in the life span of a
tree? Such a feat is uerly unthinkable!
I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree,
zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which
8
manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary
miracle has been added: the conguration of creative human
energies—millions of tiny know-hows congurating naturally
and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire
and in the absence of any human masterminding! 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.
The above is what I meant when writing, “If you can become
aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save
the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing.” For, if one is aware
that these know-hows will naturally, yes, automatically, arrange
themselves into creative and productive paerns in response
to human necessity and demand— that is, in the absence of
governmental or any other coercive master-minding—then one
will possess an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: a
faith in free people. Freedom is impossible without this faith.
Once government has had a monopoly of a creative activity
such, for instance, as the delivery of the mails, most individuals
will believe that the mails could not be eciently delivered by men
acting freely. And here is the reason: Each one acknowledges that
he himself doesn’t know how to do all the things incident to mail
delivery. He also recognizes that no other individual could do it.
These assumptions are correct. No individual possesses enough
know-how to perform a nations mail delivery any more than any
individual possesses enough know-how to make a pencil. Now,
in the absence of faith in free people—in the unawareness that
millions of tiny know-hows would naturally and miraculously
form and cooperate to satisfy this necessity—the individual
cannot help but reach the erroneous conclusion that mail can be
delivered only by governmental “masterminding.”
TESTIMONY GALORE
If I, Pencil, were the only item that could oer testimony
on what men and women can accomplish when free to try, then
those with lile faith would have a fair case. However, there is
9
testimony galore; its all about us and on every hand. Mail delivery
is exceedingly simple when compared, for instance, to the making
of an automobile or a calculating machine or a grain combine or a
milling machine or to tens of thousands of other things. Delivery?
Why, in this area where men have been le free to try, they deliver
the human voice around the world in
less than one second; they deliver an
event visually and in motion to any
persons home when it is happening;
they deliver 150 passengers from
Seale to Baltimore in less than four
hours; they deliver gas from Texas
to ones range or furnace in New
York at unbelievably low rates and
without subsidy; they deliver each
four pounds of oil from the Persian
Gulf to our Eastern Seaboard—halfway around the world—for
less money than the government charges for delivering a one-
ounce leer across the street!
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 ow. Have faith
that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand.
This faith will be conrmed. I, Pencil, seemingly simple though
I am, oer the miracle of my creation as testimony that this is a
practical faith, as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the
good earth.
10
The lesson I have
to teach is this:
Leave all creative
energies
uninhibited.

Discussion

> there’s some wood, lacquer, the printed labeling, graphite lead, a bit of metal, and an eraser. ![pencil](https://i.imgur.com/Br7Itnp.jpg) The materials that go into a pencil are: - cedar wood - graphite - metal - rubber Although this list seems short and trivial no one person could create these elements on their own. The same argument could have been given by writing a different essay, say *"I, Car"* or *"I, Airplane"*. As a good educator Leonard E. Read chooses a more down-to-earth example - a simple pencil - to prove his point and make his argument stick with the reader. Here is a video of Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman talking about the complexity involved in making a lead pencil: Milton Friedman - I, Pencil: [![Milton Friedman](https://i.imgur.com/G5gu3jx.png)](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=67tHtpac5ws) > *Think of all the persons and the numberless skills that went into their fabrication: the mining of ore, the making of steel and its refinement into saws, axes, motors; the growing of hemp and bringing it through all the stages to heavy and strong rope; the logging camps with their beds and mess halls, the cookery and the raising of all the foods. Why, untold thousands of persons had a hand in every cup of coffee the loggers drink! The logs are shipped to a mill in San Leandro, California. Can you imagine the individuals who make !at cars and rails and railroad engines and who construct and install the communication systems incidental thereto? These legions are among my antecedents.* > *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.* The Invisible Hand is a metaphor describing the ***unintended greater benefits and public good brought about by individuals acting in their own self-interests.*** We approve and reward acts that benefit society, and disapprove and punish acts that harm it - this behavior promotes the continued existence of our species and our society. This economic concept that was first introduced by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759. > *Here is an astounding fact: 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. Each one wants me less, perhaps, than does a child in the first grade. 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. I may or may not be among these items. * > *Here is an astounding fact: 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. Each one wants me less, perhaps, than does a child in the first grade. 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. I may or may not be among these items. * A great video about "I, Pencil" [![](https://i.imgur.com/WSEMnDy.png)](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYO3tOqDISE) #### TL;DR This essay - first published in 1958 - gives a wonderful description of the process behind the creation of what is seemingly a very simple object, a lead pencil. It beautifully describes the amount of human coordination that needs to happen for a simple pencil to be made. Main topics covered: - Leonard is considered to be largely responsible for the revival of the liberal tradition in post–World War II America. - In this essay he describes the incredible amount of coordination, cooperation and trade that needs to take place in the simple production of a pencil. - Guided by Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” free people accomplish economic miracles. - In this essays he shows that the seemingly unrelated interests of countless individuals from around the world converge to produce pencils without a single “master mind”. - Leonard’s main point is that economies can hardly be “planned” when not one soul possesses all the know-how and skills to produce a simple pencil. - While “I, Pencil” shoots down the baseless expectations for central planning, it provides a supremely uplifting perspective of the individual. "Make" isn't strong enough to carry this sentence; "manufacture" is probably the word he wanted, as in "manufacture me in large enough quantities to render me a commonplace." It seems almost impossible that no one on earth back in 1950-whatever could make a pencil from scratch; it certainly isn't true now, as a quick search through YouTube shows. The rest of the paragraph also argues for "manufacture," although I'm not sure that was the author's intention. I'm not sure how this advances the author's point (I probably don't understand the author's point). If we're supposed to go goggle-eyed over somebody making rope in the Philippines so I can have a pencil, we should be equally goggle-eyed over somebody in Virginia making chewing tobacco for the cowboys herding the livestock providing the leather for the mail pouches used by the letter carriers so I can get a letter. Despite government monopoly, mail delivery seems to provide at least as much wonder as pencil manufacture. Passing lightly over the (presumably non-trivial) equivalence between delivering natural gas from Texas to New York and delivering a letter across the street, it is an interesting exercise to apply the author's reasoning to the step before delivery: addressing. How is it that "millions of tiny know-hows would naturally and miraculously form and cooperate" to create a practical trans-territorial addressing scheme? There's hot-potato routing, but that's neither efficient, effective, nor cheap. There's Milgram's small-world experiment, but that begs the question because it assumes USPS addressing. Leonard Edward Read was the founder and President of the Foundation for Economic Education - one of the first modern libertarian institutions in the United States - he is considered to be largely responsible for the revival of the liberal tradition in post–World War II America. He was also an author - he wrote 29 books and numerous essays, including this well-known "I, Pencil" published in December of 1958. ![LER](https://cdn.mises.org/styles/slideshow/s3/static-page/img/Leonard%20Read.jpg?itok=K2DSYzj8) The division of labor is the separation of complex production tasks into many simpler subtasks so that individuals may specialize. Specialized Individuals or organizations will trade to take advantage of the capabilities of others in addition to their own. The division of labor is the motive for trade and the source of economic interdependence. Its importance in economics lies in the fact that a given number of workers can produce far more output using division of labor compared to the same number of workers each working alone. Read on here: [Division of Labor by Michael Munger](https://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/DivisionofLabor.html) > *From the standpoint of know-how the only dierence between the miner of graphite in Ceylon and the logger in Oregon is in the type of know-how. Neither the miner nor the logger can be dispensed with, any more than can the chemist at the factory or the worker in the oil field—paran being a by-product of petroleum.*