I, Pencil — By Leonard Read

Image drawn in pencil, on paper.

What goes into the making of a single pencil?

In 1958, Leonard E. Read asked himself that very question — and wrote an elegant explication:

I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, 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.

In his piece we’re taken step-by-step through the entire process of how a single pencil is produced.

First, there are the many materials required to make a single pencil, among them: wood, rubber, paint, lacquer, graphite, metal, zinc, wax, and many other things.

We are then shown how these materials are really only the beginning of the process, for a whole industry is in turn required to produce each of those materials.

There is, for example, the lumber industry needed to produce the wood; the mining industry to mine and mill and smelt the zinc and lead and metal; the rubber industry, of course, and the paint and graphite, and so on.

Then, within each of these industries, there are numerous sub-divisions, such as chemical industries, which make up the groundwork for paint and lacquer, and the engineering companies to supply all the tools, and the shipping and transportation companies, and even the lighthouse workers to guide the ships safely into port.

Of course there is also the singular fact that our solitary pencil could neither be manufactured nor produced without all the various other forms of transportation required to get the products from place to place, and of course this transportation requires its own set of industries (not just oil), and on and on, all of which industries — and please take a moment to process this — are, in turn, no less involved than the manufacturing of the wood or graphite or rubber.

So that when everything is said and done, the making of one pencil requires thousands and thousands of people, most of whom have specialized knowledge and specialized jobs, in thousands of different industries.

Furthermore, these people come from all over the world. No centralized planning committee or commune imaginable, even with an army of super-geniuses, could organize the countless factors that go into the making of that one small pencil.

And yet in this country, as in all developed countries, pencils are so cheap and abundant that nobody thinks twice about them.

How is this so?

The answer is devilishly simple: private property and the freedom to trade that property.

The freedom to produce and trade and then reap the subsequent rewards are what bring these thousands and thousands of people, from these thousands of different industries the wide-world over, into peaceful and mutually beneficial cooperation with one another.

Think about that.

Think long and hard about it, I beseech you.

In fact, I insist you do.

Your entire understanding of human existence — whether you’re a billionaire, a bartender, or an artist, and whether you live in a cult, condo, or commune — depends upon it.

Your life depends upon it, I submit.

Think about some of the things you use in your day-to-day existence. Think about your private path of least resistance.

Think of your eyeglasses, which Galileo and Spinoza would have given their eyeteeth for.

Think of the exercise mat upon your floor. Think of the ab-roller for your core.

Think about the utensils you use to cook and clean your food, the cups you use to drink your potable water, and the faucets you use to turn that water off and on.

Think of the hoses and the sprinklers for your lawn.

Think of sponges and your soap.

Think of rope.

Think of your chocolate truffle and think of the package that it comes in.

Think of packaging again and again (and again).

Think of your clothing, no matter how fine or how shabby it may or may not be. Think of your underwear, down to the tag we do not see.

Think critically.

Think about your toothbrush and your toothpaste, and its tube. And the cap that goes on that tube.

Think of your lube.

Think about your medicine: aspirin, ibuprofin, Pepto, Lipator, antihistamines for the cough and wheeze.

Think of braces for your elbows and your knees.

Think of your transportation — bicycle, train, plane, bus, boat, automobile, jumbo jet, or even your walking shoes — and think of the sheer number of discrete parts that each of these things contain, and which you use.

Think of other technological breakthroughs.

Can you?

How about your jacket and its worn buttons, the lovely denim of faded blue, the toothpicks and the gum you chew?

Your bedding and your hygiene and your make-up.

Think of the alarm clock that every morning helps you wake up.

Think of your books and your paints and paintbrushes. Your chisel and hammer.

Your megahertz of memory if your a computer programmer.

Think of your keyboard and your mouse, your voice-recognition software.

Think of filters for your water and air.

Think about your entertainment: wine and wine bottles, dark beer. Think of all the brandy that you’ve consumed or stored.

Think of your playing cards or tarot cards or magic cards, your hoops, your chess-or-checker-board.

Think of packaging again. Think of the packages that all your things arrive in.

Think of your gardening equipment, or any other metal or wood or plastic or glass items you may use.

Think of your ball-peen hammer and your nails and your screws.

Think of your tape measures and pliers, your wrenches, your saws and your multicolored chalks.

To say nothing of your electricity — the lights, the cameras, the watches, the clocks.

Your computers and modems, MP3’s and stereos, word-processors and photo-editing software — and of course your phone, your phone, without which you’d be alone.

And televisions and lights (“More light!” said Goethe, then died) and musical instruments and medical equipment and rocket ships and edible water bottles…

Think of anything. Think of airplane models.

Look around you. Is your chair metal or wood? Does your desk or table have bolts and nails?

Notice details.

I insist, I positively insist.

Think of me as a kind of oculist.

Because I promise you — I absolutely promise — that the filthy, hardcore industry, which I believe in and love so much, the industry that went into producing, for instance, just one small component of your phone, or your bicycle, or the paperback book in your hand, or the shoes on your feet, or the glasses on your face, or the contact lenses in your eyes, or the ring in your navel, nose, or nipples, or the needles which tattooed your skin, that industry was amplified a thousandfold compared with one solitary pencil, no matter how cheap or how thin.

So please take one more look — and then look again.

Take one more look at the blue-black ink across your skin.

There’s a moral to this story and that moral is this:

Embrace technology.

Look suspiciously on the buzzword ecology.

Technology got us to this point. Only technology can get us beyond.

It is a magic wand.

There’s something profoundly paradoxical in the quest for less technology and a more simple way of life, while flying the world in jumbo jets. In fact, it’s about as paradoxical as it gets.

Celebrate, rather, human progress and specialization.

Celebrate the division of labor that technology creates, thereby freeing us all to pursue the things we most enjoy and at which we excel, since we are no longer each yoked to the task of day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month survival, but can trade freely and peacefully with those who have the things we need and want, in exchange for the things we ourselves have in turn worked to produce — being no longer condemned to a life of drudgery and tedium.

(Money is only a medium.)

Celebrate individualization.

Celebrate civilization.

Civilization is the progress toward independent, private lives, wherein we are no longer dominated by the group, gang, tribe, or community but live freely: free to associate with others as we please, or not.

This is the fundamental thing you’ve never been taught.

It’s the only thing that’s truly sustainable. It’s what you’ll never hear from any of the postmodernists, the intellectuals, the politicos, the hipsters, the academic phonies and imposters:

Celebrate human freedom and the independent mind that freedom fosters.


  • Redmond

    March 10, 2010

    Great Post Ray

    if antone is interested, I just posted the full text of I, Pencil

    Well worth the read

  • Redmond

    March 10, 2010

    Yes If Antoine is interested – Antoine – are you interested?

  • Tarquino

    August 31, 2015

    In what way is this a glowing testimony to laissez-faire capitalism? It’s simply a statement that human beings create, organise, adapt, invent, improve, communicate, trade and co-operate. They were doing this for millenia before the standardisation of the capitalist model, the only reason they do it more efficiently now is through the utilisation and squandering of fossil fuels. Just because capitalism is built on trade it does not mean that trade is not possible without capitalism! Just nonsense.

  • Ray

    September 4, 2015

    In what way? In the exact way you say:

    “It’s simply a statement that human beings create, organise, adapt, invent, improve, communicate, trade and co-operate.”

    Governments, by definition, can only impede this process.

    The rest is just an elaboration.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • father time, PhD

    September 6, 2015

    The Good Father likes your post, as usual. I’d be interested in your take on what Marx and others thought of as pre-capitalist economies. I’m thinking of the American Indian Potlatch or Trobriander gift economies explicated by Economic Anthropologists. These gifts did not legally bind the receiver to any sort of recompense. But there were social incentives for the receiver to respond in kind.

    There was even the interesting practice of giving a gift of more value than the one received in order to promote the inter-tribal status of the ‘Big Man’ as opposed to seeking a profit in trade goods. This can be explained by the displacement of what we think of as monetary profit with social status.

    In any case I don’t think that there was profit offered at each stage of production; collection of shells, etc. Perhaps it could be seen as a tax for membership in the tribe.

    There may also be something to be said about the economic considerations of the historical practice of gifting women, while carefully acknowledging the barbarity of the custom. But that will probably take us down the rabbit hole.

    At any rate, I think of these systems as generally free markets. But perhaps you could make the case that even these early systems were constrained by what the tribal ‘government’ enforced as standards of value.

    I recognize there are still some stages of production for goods as implied barter in such a system. In this sense, the distinction from your example may be more quantitative than qualitative. That is, the comparison may turn on the number of levels of production rather than the absence of central control which I think is your key point.

  • Ray

    September 7, 2015

    Hello there!

    Awesome comment, Father Time.

    I absolutely agree that the systems you describe are free market, and I’ve even discussed such systems before — or, at any rate, I’ve touched upon them.

    Barter and indirect exchange and all such related things are totally compatible with free markets. There’s nothing wrong with them. They will exist, to varying degrees, in laissez-faire societies, where humans are free to interact with one another without government intervention.

    But barter in any of its many forms cannot support complex economies — which is to say, it cannot support division of labor or specialization.

    Money, which is nothing more or less than a medium of exchange, allows for long-term savings (unlike crops or cattle, which are perishable), and long-term savings are what make possible that thing called Capital, which in turn makes possible the division of labor and specialization.

    Specialization is the crux of human progress: without it, we’re all essentially yoked to the job of day-to-day physical survival.

  • Dog

    December 11, 2016

    Marky, clever rebuttal, its too bad you’re sexually frustrated

  • Ray

    December 14, 2016

    Yeah, Dog.

    Thank you for dropping by.


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