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I, Pencil: My Family Tree As Told to Leonard E. Read

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Leonard E. Read skillfully teaches a lesson in economics, through the story of a pencil and its makers. "Not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me"

I, Pencil by Leonard E. Read, c2006, 6"x9", staple bound, 11 page booklet. Heavy paper cover, glossy paper pages.

11 pages

First published December 1, 1958

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About the author

Leonard Edward Read

47 books19 followers

Liberty does not and cannot include any action, regardless of sponsorship, which lessens the liberty of a single human being.
Leonard E. Read was the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education — the first modern libertarian think tank in the United States — and was largely responsible for the revival of the liberal tradition in post–World War II America.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 155 reviews
Profile Image for Ruby Granger.
Author 2 books44.5k followers
January 23, 2019
Such an important, valuable essay and lesson to mankind. Despite having been first first published in the 1960s, Read's point remains just as important (if not MORE important than it did at the time of publication). With this worldview, we can begin to rehumanise those with whom we are not in direct content... those who live in different countries to us, with different jobs, and different cultural traditions.

Consider the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in April 2013 (which I am sure you still remember reading about in the news!). Before brand names like Primark and Walmart were attached to this collapse, its victims remained separate from us; however, as soon as we found this common ground, a bridge of familiarity formed; the need to protect one another was exemplified. We can find this same sense of familiarity within the pencil: an object which requires millions to flourish, and which connects people all over the world. Read asks that we look past power and focus rather on people and the creative energy which binds us all as a species.
Profile Image for Joseph.
57 reviews3 followers
November 2, 2008
please take 10 minutes and read this. its online at fee.org. oh, then don't go vote for Big Government...
Profile Image for Greg Leininger.
11 reviews1 follower
January 26, 2021
Classic short essay teaching the basic and powerful lessons on free market economics. Look up “I, Pencil” on the web and read the free copy from fee.org. 10 minute read.
Profile Image for Tova.
628 reviews
March 29, 2018
As Sam would put it This essay is THE WORST. This is actually the worst essay I've ever had to read, and my entire class hated it. The pencil was extremely condescending and this was just weird and as pointless as a dull pencil. I hate it with the thousand passions of a thousand acrid lemons and limes.

(Yes, I'm in a bad mood, and thus I'm ranting about shitty essays AP has made me read)
Profile Image for Kevin Carson.
Author 29 books187 followers
October 27, 2021
It would be instructive to systematically go through this entire puff piece on "spontaneous" coordination through "voluntary" market relationships, and note every single mention of the place where some resource came from -- along with its colonial status at or within a few years prior to the time of Read's writing, what Western encloser held title to the resource, what authoritarian measures the colonial or post-colonial regime used to forced people into the wage labor market and keep labor cheap, etc.

It would be equally instructive to do a contemporary remake of the same pamphlet, examining which of all those examples of spontaneous "free trade" in the pencil's supply chain are actually vertically integrated within a centrally planned corporate framework -- including de facto if not de jure vertical integration through contractual relationships enforced by intellectual property law.

This piece of shit thing is distributed as free propaganda to public school kids by outfits like FEE, and I'd love to see the same kids given something that blasts it out of the water.
Profile Image for Matt R. Carvalho.
Author 1 book3 followers
March 13, 2016
"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 efficiently delivered by men acting freely. And here is the reason: Each one acknowledges that he himself doesn't know how to do all the thing incident to mail delivery. He also recongizes that no other individual could do it. These assumptions are correct. No individual possesses enought know-how to perform a nation's mail delivery any more than any individual possesses enough know-how to make a pencial. 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 "master-minding"."
Profile Image for David Rush.
330 reviews29 followers
September 28, 2018
From what I can tell on the Internet I think this is highly regarded and much loved introduction or condensation of libertarian philosophy. I see the Goodread’s reviews are generally 4 and 5 stars and some are quite gushing in their praise.

I’m not here to troll, and I may just be too dumb to see how good it is, but I don’t get it. It seems like it is trying to be a fable with a moral of some sort, but Read spends half the piece listing the ingredients in a pencil and then maybe a quarter about how “no one person” knows how to make a pencil and how there is no mastermind. And really the actual message part of the story is only a few sentences so for it to be libertarian classic I have to wonder what people are grabbing onto that makes it a classic, but statistically the time he spends on the message is pretty slight.

If it is supposed to be fable like, it is missing a character to draw you in like in Jonathan Livingston Seagull or the sheer power and cleverness of Flatland. So it falls flat for me in the aspect, and that could very well be me being too dense to detect the wonder. But maybe it is not a fable and rather a straightforward explanation of what is great about free markets and no regulation. But if that is the point he fails because he never explains anything, other than what goes into a pencil. But the pencil parts in no way indicate the method required to put them together.

My off the cuff conclusion is the whole piece is served BYOB (bring your own beliefs) and all the people who like this story came to it already believing “government” and regulation is bad, or worse something that takes away “freedom”. Plus he NEVER describes the system he is railing against. Does he mean American capitalism of the ‘50s? Or is it Stalinist Russian? I kind of feel he thinks they are the same, because his hatred of the mail system of his day is the only governmental thing that seems really clear on an his feelings about that are as strong as the anticommunist rhetoric of the day.

Be aware, I am NOT saying he is wrong. I am saying I don’t think it is a convincing tale for anybody who is not already a believer. Below I go through each section noting what I felt was unconvincing.

I'll bet there isn't a person on earth who knows how to make even so simple a thing as a pencil. If this could be demonstrated, it would dramatically portray the miracle of the market and would help to make clear that all manufactured things are but manifestations of creative-energy exchanges, that these are, in fact, spiritual phenomena

Really just an aside and my first nit to pick. His point is we don’t think about what goes into a pencil, but if he can show that “no one person” knows how a pencil is made it will “dramatically portray” the miracle of the market (the invisible hand I think). But why would proving that making a pencil is complicated and requires other people show the “market” is a miracle? All it proves is that it complicated things are complicated.

Innumerable Antecedents: inventory of a pencil’s ingredients and some of the process

He spends a lot of time listing all the things that go into making a pencil (858 of 2421 words). But as far as making a case against government intrusion, he never shows the connection now and I didn’t see it later either. In general I just don’t see why all the parts of a pencil help a libertarian viewpoint.

Another nitpick, when I think of antecedents I think ancestors or previous version of something, not what the ingredients of something. I suppose one can stretch the meaning to fit, but it just seems odd.

No one knows

He seems to be intent on saying no one person knows how to make a pencil. I think I could argue there are probably a number of people who could explain just what he described, but in any case I don’t see why the complexities of pencil construction has anything to do with how an economy is setup. Why does it prove regulation (i.e. government) is bad?

And later on he seems to say because you rely on people besides yourself to make pencils that proves his point, although at this juncture it is a little unclear what his point is. Another aside; remember how freaked out conservatives got when Obama rightfully point out, from a purely logical perspective, that a successful business owner needs things like roads and bridges that the store owner did not build? I guess those conservatives never read “I, Pencil”. (Sorry to bring up Obama in a review of a libertarian book but I thought the irony was funny)

No Mastermind

This part starts off with an odd assertion that no person can be found who is directing pencil manufacturing.

There is a fact still more astounding: the absence of a mastermind, 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 guess he is still riffing on no one person can do it all in the pencil making world and that somehow that means “the invisible hand” does it all mysteriously. But even in a business environment I would think identifying a need, putting together a business plan and finding funding would be how to proceed. Pencils don’t fall from the sky by saying nobody can know how to do it and therefor trust in the invisible hand.

Also, previously I thought the “invisible hand” was capitalism allowing the most efficient to succeed and the price to adjust according to supply and demand. But for Read it is the world without government left to its own devices that is the hand. I have to speculate on what he means because, again, he doesn’t define or tell us what specifically means by “invisible hand”. He just says no one person knows, there is no mastermind, and that it is a mystery then “hand”. That’s it.

If you can become aware of the miraculousness that I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing.

But what freedoms are mankind so unhappily losing? He never says. You the reader have to bring this worldview to the table. Again the reader has to be ready see his conclusion since Read never enumerates what or how mankind is losing freedom.

In the No Mastermind part he finally mentions is “government”.

...into creative and productive patterns in response to human necessity and demand — that is, in the absence of governmental or any other coercive masterminding

So now we know government is coercive and by implication UN-creative, but he never says how. And his one example of this horrible thing is the postal service. But he never gives a clue what is so bad about the mail. You have to already think mail is bad I guess. Anecdotally, for close to 50 years I’ve been getting mail just fine, but I don’t have any research on performance but neither does he.

After labeling mail as the bad guy he then says it is worse because the “government has had a monopoly of a creative activity such, for instance, as the delivery of the mails”

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 efficiently delivered by men acting freely

I just don’t get why our mailman is not “acting freely”. It’s a job. You do it you get paid. Why is working to deliver mail slavery but delivering for UPS or FedEx is freedom?

Testimony Galore

Testimony Galore makes no sense. And I gotta say he does NOT offer testimony galore, or any testimony of any kind. He just says,

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.

There is the next paragraph,

Delivery? Why, in this area where men have been left 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 person's home when it is happening; they deliver 150 passengers from Seattle to Baltimore in less than four hours; they deliver gas from Texas to one's 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 letter across the street!

First off who thinks mail delivery is “exceedingly simple”? And even so he doesn’t explain why the postal service is so horrible. In 1958 it cost 4 cents to mail a letter, what pissed him off so much back then? And anecdotally, while growing up in the 60’s and 70’s I always got my toy soldiers and joy buzzers delivered successfully in the mail. And I would have quite angry back then if I didn’t get my toys. Again he doesn’t offer anything to explain his statements.

Concluding paragraph
Merely organize society to act in harmony with this lesson. Let society's legal apparatus remove all obstacles the best it can.

But what does he mean by “Let society’s legal apparatus remove all obstacles”? He never says what the “obstacles” are although one assumes it means governmental regulations of any kind. Does he mean environmental? Does he mean building codes? Food quality? What? We never know. But if your default position is government is always on your back and environmentalist are trying to tell you what to do then this fit in nicely with your anger.

The up side of never being explicit is the reader can simply fill in with their already established worldview and feel outrage or inspiration or whatever.

Word Count464 introduction
858 Innumerable Antecedents: inventory of a pencil’s ingredients and some of the process
323 No one knows how a pencil is made
487 No Mastermind
194 Testimony Galore
94 The lesson

2421 total worlds
1767 words in my review with quotes
Profile Image for Marcas.
353 reviews
July 24, 2021
Leonard Read teaches economics, with an emphasis on humility and gratitude.

“The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.” - G.K. Chesterton

Economics that takes us back to our roots. Indeed, the word economy comes from the Ancient Greek oikonomia, based on oikos (house) and nemein (manage). Oikonomia literally means household management.

Except, it's not so much 'managed' as guided by a diverse group of skilful persons in ways we don't always grasp cognitively and which can't be substituted with a coercive leader or group.

I, Pencil captures this and more succinctly, by referencing each step involved in creating the humble pencil, then meditating upon the nature of the tree and creation itself.
Profile Image for Sean Rosenthal.
197 reviews24 followers
July 31, 2013
Interesting Quote:

"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."

-Leonard E. Reed, I, Pencil
Profile Image for Sarah .
720 reviews33 followers
August 10, 2017
A wonderful little primer on the power of the Invisible Hand. A great introduction to the magnificence of human creativity and cooperation.
Profile Image for Shane.
389 reviews7 followers
July 31, 2022
A sharp, short essay told from the perspective of a pencil that grasps the complexity of this apparently simple object. Millions of humans were involved in this pencil's construction. And this is its story.

Leonard E Read dissects complex manufacturing and economics, and the value of labour, in a short book that focuses on one small object. The tone is playful but polemic, and the 1960s essay has real resonance in our contemporary world where we all carry incredibly complex items with us all the time.
Profile Image for Lukas Mason.
84 reviews5 followers
May 8, 2020
Short, sweet, and to the point. Gets its point across with little fuss or fanfare. The wonder that is the distributed, specialized, modern economy is apparent in this essay, and Leonard Reed is brilliant to choose as unassuming of an object as a pencil. Read it for free here at the Mises Institute: https://cdn.mises.org/I%20Pencil.pdf
May 6, 2021
It would seem easy to dismiss an essay about an idealistic economy written 6 decades ago. So much about our society has changed. But maybe that is exactly why the message within its 10 or so pages seems so urgent now. A truly wonderful quick read with a centralised message of "Leave all creative energies uninhibited."
Profile Image for raj dasani.
24 reviews3 followers
October 22, 2022
A very good essay to read in a time when the fears of capitalism are gripping us. I don’t know if capitalism is good or evil, probably it is both, but one thing you can definitely say about it is that it’s sure as hell efficient. This essay presents concrete, convincing, and subtle argument which is not full in itself but is a good thought starter for the reader.
Profile Image for Jodi.
1,097 reviews11 followers
March 2, 2021
Wow. This is a paradigm shift and a fascinating look at some principles of economics and liberty. Very humbling. Just wow.

I had to track this down after reading "The Tuttle Twins and the Miraculous Pencil," which was based on this essay. You can find "I, Pencil" free to download online.
Profile Image for Ryan Kennedy.
123 reviews1 follower
December 18, 2022
No one man knows how to make a pencil.

A brilliantly written essay explaining how we are all connected threw capitalism and how our society wouldn't be possible without it or each other. This should be required reading in schools.
Profile Image for Kaitlyn.
94 reviews56 followers
April 19, 2020
Read this book aloud as a family. Short climatic book, with a good purpose and message.
Profile Image for aria.
4 reviews3 followers
February 17, 2021
Such a simple and brief way of understanding economics (more precisely the free market) without being overly parsimonious.
Profile Image for Sahil Gupta.
23 reviews4 followers
September 14, 2022
Nothing like the autobiography of a pencil to illustrate the idea of free market economics, the invisible hand, and spontaneous order. Ingenious!
Profile Image for Kitsune.
1,471 reviews31 followers
August 3, 2019
Read the online version, with introduction by Milton Friedman and afterward by Donald J. Boudreaux. The short essay gives a quick overview of the complexity of manufacturing something as simple as a Mongol 482 Eberhard Faber pencil, from the graphite mines of Sri Lanka to the forests of Oregon. The key point is that all of thousands of people involved in the making of a pencil (or millions, depending on how broadly you define the contributors) were harmoniously organizing themselves to manufacture something shockingly complex without any central planning, without anyone understanding all parts of the process at all.

It's from a typical libertarian point of view, so there're a couple of jabs about how a free market driven by self-interest will always be more efficient than top-down central planning, using mail delivery as its punching bag. Tellingly, out of the millions of people involved in the creating of the pencil, none of them are regulators. There is no mention of how the short-term pursuit of self-interest can lead to the tragedy of the commons, though I suppose that would've been a little forward thinking for 1958.

On an aesthetic level, I was just a little disappointed about the overview of the actual manufacturing process. Given the nature of the work, I think more detail would've been justified, rather than just passing references to a half-dozen inputs.
Profile Image for Adrián Sánchez.
148 reviews11 followers
December 26, 2015
Con esta breve descripción de cómo se elabora un lápiz se demuestra la capacidad del libre mercado, mediante el orden espontáneo que surge gracias al actuar individual para crear ese bien que a primera vista parece simple de elaborar, sin necesidad de un ente coercitivo que pretenda planificar su producción. ¿Para qué necesitamos a este ente llamado Estado si con la misma certeza con la que el libre mercado puede proveer bienes básicos y necesarios podría también ofrecer los mismos que se consideran propios de tal ente malévolo?

"Déjese a las energías creativas fluir libremente. Simplemente organícese a la sociedad para actuar en armonía con esta lección. Procúrese que la organización jurídica remueva todos los obstáculos lo más que pueda. Permítase que los conocimientos surjan libremente. Téngase fe en que los hombres y mujeres libres responderán a la Mano Invisible. Esa fe será ampliamente confirmada. Yo, el lápiz, aparentemente tan simple, ofrendo el milagro de mi creación como testimonio de que esa fe resultará muy práctica, tan práctica como lo son el sol, la lluvia, un cedro, la buena tierra."
Profile Image for Paul.
21 reviews11 followers
March 12, 2020
Cool short story about the "invisible hand". It gives a refreshing perspective on the million of goods and services generated by the modern economy every seconds - how it could be extremely difficult to plan and make a pencil from scratch without free competition, private property and market.

My question is, is free market the only place where innovation thrives? There are advanced inventions that are a direct product of central planning and governmental research funding - coming to my mind are Apollo 11, atomic bombs, even some argue, the many technology components behind the first iPhone (Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy has a great chapter on this). Military research seems to be a great driving force in technology advancement

Perhaps the free market is the best way to productionalize and distribute progress?

Profile Image for M. Pandžić.
11 reviews4 followers
September 23, 2013
I’ve heard about this essay so much, that when I started reading it I thought it was going to be boring because I already knew what it was all about, but I was definitely wrong. Before any thought on market regulation, one must know what markets actually are. Leonard E. Read, with an amazing ability to synthesize and present (through storytelling) what markets are really made of: infinite and complex voluntary exchanges; constructs a sound argument for getting rid of any political mastermind (and the illusion that they have the knowledge to successfully design and direct our lives) and have faith in people, in free people.

An impressive essay!
Profile Image for Daniel.
65 reviews6 followers
February 22, 2017
The statement, "Not a single person on earth knows how to make me," is not a true statement. I think the author means that it takes a great effort and contributions from many people with a variety of skills to produce this small and relatively simple item. However, someone, one persons conceived the idea and one person directs all the components to come together. I just think there is another way for the author to make his point. And yes, given all that humanity has accomplished, I agree we don't need the government to direct us to do other tasks. Point taken. Nice little essay.
May 14, 2020
Solamente me gustaría destacar una frase en particular de las múltiples que se encuentran en el ensayo elaborado por Leonard Read y es “La lección que tengo y enseño es esta: liberen todas las energías creativas. Simplemente organicen la sociedad para actuar en armonía con esta lección. Permita que el aparato legal de la sociedad elimine todos los obstáculos lo mejor que pueda. Permita que estos creativos conocimientos fluyan libremente.”
Profile Image for Greg Foley.
44 reviews
November 15, 2022
I'd recommend this to anyone who doesn't believe that a free people are a good thing, or believes that the government must perform certain jobs. It only takes a few minutes to read, so it might be a good start to economics for someone you couldn't convince to read something longer, or maybe even someone you could.
Profile Image for Dayo Adewoye.
127 reviews14 followers
May 25, 2022
A short but brilliant story illustrating how the free market effectively coordinates the activities of thousands of economic agents in getting us products and services, in the absence of any central planner. A great read.
Profile Image for Justin.
11 reviews
October 22, 2015
The point is made that no one human can make a pencil yet millions cooperate unguided to make a pencil. This is a principal of the market often called the "invisible hand" or referred to as spontaneous order. Finally, government "planning" is contrasted to the effectiveness of spontaneous order.
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