In Defense of ‘I, Pencil’

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A response to The American Conservative: We should appreciate the complex, global networks that allow for pencil production and the supply of countless other goods.

Declan Leary has a piece in The American Conservative titled “We Are Not Pencils,” and the URL for the piece suggests that the title at some point was “Pencils Are from the Devil.”

Pencils don’t ordinarily arouse this level of passion in people, and it might seem a bit strange if you’re not familiar with a certain type of libertarian. “I, Pencil” is an essay by Leonard Read, a libertarian who founded the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in 1946. A key part of FEE’s ongoing mission is to take every possible opportunity to publicize Read’s essay. They have physical copies, digital copies, audio copies, Spanish copies, and lesson plans based on the work. “I, Pencil” is to Beltway libertarians what the pocket Constitution is to Beltway conservatives.

The narrator of the essay is a pencil, and as it’s written in first person, it can be a bit hokey at times. Case in point: “Writing is both my vocation and my avocation; that’s all I do.” The pencil explains to the reader the process of how it was made: The wood is from a tree in the Pacific Northwest that is milled in San Leandro, Calif.; the graphite for its lead is mined in Sri Lanka, mixed with clay from Mississippi, and treated with candelilla wax from Mexico; and the eraser is made with rapeseed oil from Indonesia. The pencil also tells of the miners, truck drivers, and utility workers who make all that production possible.

The point of the essay is that no single person knows how to make a pencil independently. It’s impossible. There was never a time in human history when people made pencils by themselves, and buying all the supplies to make a pencil on your own doesn’t count. By purchasing wood, for example, you’re skipping all the work that went into logging and milling it. To truly make a pencil on your own, from scratch, you would have to travel the world for natural resources — but wait, that means you’d be depending on people working in transportation to get you where you need to go. You could walk, but then you’d get hungry and need some food, which someone else would have to make. Okay, so you walk around and hunt for your own food, using a gun . . . never mind, someone else had to make that gun. Finally, you are hunting for food with your bare hands, and your quest to be a truly independent pencil producer has reduced you to a hunter-gatherer.

That story in reverse is Adam Smith’s point in Wealth of Nations. Societies progress from hunter-gatherer to commercial based on the division of labor. When people specialize in doing one thing and trade for the other things they need, the society, on average, is better off than a society where individuals try to do everything alone. The people of Cambodia are very self-reliant; they are also very poor.

Leary, however, thinks that the message of “I, Pencil” is not empirical and is instead based on “the language of religion” and that supply chains are “miracles in which we must have faith.” Read gives aid to that interpretation with some gratuitous rhetorical flourishes in his conclusion about having “faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand.” Some libertarians do make free markets religion-like, and they’re wrong to do so.

They’d be better off focusing on the story of how pencils are made, which is completely empirical. It starts with the reality of natural resources. Natural resources, being natural, aren’t everywhere humans need them to be. There are no orange orchards in the Yukon, nor is there naturally occurring sea salt in Nebraska. Everything we make was a raw natural resource at some point in the past. Limiting yourself to the natural resources in your own country is foolish.

That entails a certain amount of reliance on global supply chains. Leary looks at the current mess in global supply chains and sees “profound fragility.” Yes, the supply chains were thrown off by a once-in-a-century pandemic, it’s true, but name a system that wouldn’t be. During a pandemic, you’d much rather live in a world with multinational pharmaceutical companies than one without them. Again, this is an empirical question. Sharing of medical knowledge and supplies around the globe has meant that diseases which used to be deadly, such as leprosy, smallpox, and polio, are now either eradicated or easily treatable. Some countries, namely China and India, tried to go it alone on COVID vaccines, and their vaccines are far less effective than the ones made by Pfizer or Moderna.

Writing of that kind of interdependence, Leary says that, “If neither the miner nor the logger can be dispensed with, what happens if the miner or the logger stops showing up to work? What happens, for that matter, if half the truck drivers suddenly decide to stop driving all in quick succession?” These are indeed vulnerabilities. But they pale in comparison to the vulnerabilities of pre-globalized production. People’s ability to eat used to be dependent on the weather. If you grow all your own food and there’s a drought, you starve and die. Many people over much of human history died that way. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer for the Church of England includes prayers for rain, fair weather, and plenty. Those seem quaint to us nowadays, but the livelihoods of those praying then depended on the weather, and all humans can do about the weather is pray. Depending on a global network with many interchangeable parts has disadvantages, but it has made bad weather a minor disruption instead of a cause for mass death.

Leary seems unaware of that when he writes, “There will always be risk in the world — famine or a meteorite could strike your land tomorrow — but it is always wise to reduce your vulnerability to chance to the lowest level possible.” First, it is not always wise to reduce your vulnerability to chance to the lowest level possible. You’d be wearing an N-95 mask for the rest of your life if you believed that. But second, and more importantly, it is by depending on a global network of producers that we reduce our vulnerability to chance events. We are less vulnerable to famine and meteorites precisely because we can import things from places where the weather is good and there are no smoldering craters.

“We find ourselves here, on the brink of crisis, not only thanks to some Invisible Hand but thanks to a series of active choices,” Leary writes of our current predicament. “In important ways, America chose to take Leonard Read’s advice.” But in most important ways, it did not. Americans chose to pass the Wagner Act and the Jones Act, establish the Export-Import Bank, empower the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, govern trading relations with thousand-page agreements with special-interest carveouts, create occupational-licensing standards that lead to shortages of workers, pursue trade wars not only with China but also with those nefarious Canadian milk and lumber producers, and do it all under the guise of an expanding federal government where the president can rule by executive order. Whomever they were listening to when they did all those things, it certainly wasn’t Leonard “Let Freedom Reign” Read.

Instead of suggesting constructive reforms to improve our global supply chains, Leary advocates that we should “withdraw from dependence on the global system and reconnect ourselves to local, tangible, human networks of production and consumption.” He has in mind shopping at farmer’s markets and growing your own food. “We can reject the miracle, as fully as we’re able,” he writes.

“Reject the miracle” is not a conservative impulse. Libertarians are often derided as hyper-individualistic, and sometimes that criticism is fair. But who are the hyper-individualistic ones: the people who appreciate the complex interactions of humans all over the world that are necessary to make a pencil, or the people who think they are better off withdrawing from dependence on others, as fully as they’re able?

People who make “I, Pencil” into a religion are wrong to do so, but Read’s insight is fundamentally empirical, anti-individualistic, and pro-humanity. Lots of people all around the world had to do plenty of hard work to provide you with your pencil. That’s a cause for the fundamental conservative sentiment: gratitude.


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