“I, Pencil” turns 60

The Foundation for Economic Education is celebrating the 60th anniversary of Leonard Read’s famous essay “I, Pencil” with a series of essays about the essay that are worth reading for anyone who isn’t familiar with the groundbreaking original work.

If you haven’t read “I, Pencil,” you must. It is a short, simple essay that makes profound points about market economics — points that are overlooked every day by millions of people whose lives are enriched by the market economy that we all take for granted.

In the essay, Read writes from the point of view of a basic pencil. His central insight is expressed by the pencil’s simple statement that “not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.”

That seems absurd. Of course someone knows how to make a pencil. But no. In fact, no one person can do it. Because to make a pencil, one has to mine graphite, fell tall trees, forge the metal that makes the eraser band, obtain the rubber that makes the eraser, and, of course, build the factories, ships, roads, trucks, and containers that make and transport all the components. Don’t forget drilling for the petroleum and refining the fuel that makes the vehicles go.

A single, simple pencil is not so simple after all. What makes it possible — and for a few dollars a pack — is the modern market with its division of labor and free exchange of goods and services. Because school children need pencils, thousands of people who don’t need pencils or even care about pencils exchange their labor for some small part of what later becomes a pencil.

It is, in short, a miracle. As Read writes, in the character of the pencil: “If you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing.”

“I, Pencil” was so influential, that Milton Friedman, who popularized it, posed with a pencil on the cover of “Free to Choose.”

Even 60 years after the publication of “I, Pencil,” millions of Americans remain suspicious of markets, completely unaware of how and why they work, and possessed of the belief that some controlling force is needed to make sure people get the goods and services they need.

If you know someone who hasn’t read this great essay, share it with him or her. The more people who have even a simple understanding of the benefits of the market economy, the better.