“I, Pencil”, or, how many millions of people does it take to make one pencil?
No one person on the planet has all the knowledge or skills necessary to make one pencil. It takes multiple millions of people contributing their specialized skills just to make one.
That story is told in “I, Pencil: My Family Tree as told to Leonard E. Read”, which you can find here.
I’ve long been aware of that article, but am embarrassed to admit I’ve never read it before today.
It is brilliant.
Here’s the core idea:
I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me—no, that’s 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 better 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.
The article does a survey of the range of people needed and spans the earth with an inventory of locations where resources are obtained:
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 coffee berry in far off 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 company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how. From the standpoint of know-how the only difference 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—paraffin being a by-product of petroleum.
The central argument is no one person has all the information and no one person, corporation, or group is directing all the action:
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 find the Invisible Hand at work. This is the mystery to which I earlier referred.
I commanded the article to you. It is a delightful treat. It will only take you 5 or 6 minutes to read. Check it out.
Here is the author and background on the article:
Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) founded FEE in 1946 and served as its president until his death.
“I, Pencil,” his most famous essay, was first published in the December 1958 issue of The Freeman. Although a few of the manufacturing details and place names have changed over the past forty years, the principles are unchanged.