Without Freedom There Would be No Pencils

In a chapter entitled “Opportunity: The Great Art of Life?” from his book, How Do We Know?, Leonard Read writes the following:

Opportunities are indeed rare in countries where one cannot act creatively as he or she pleases. Rare, too, are opportunities for you or me that are beyond the range of our potentialities or talents. Astronomy is no more within my range than is the making of an ordinary wooden lead pencil. And, all too rare are the astronomers—or those who have a part in pencil-making and countless other specializations—who strive for an understanding of human liberty.

It is a truism that the greatest amount of freedom will yield the greatest amount of opportunity. It is not for nothing that America has historically been referenced as the “Land of Opportunity.” America had much opportunity because America had much freedom. And despite the freedom-crushing goals of the current presidential administration, opportunity can still be found in the U.S.A.

Leonard Read wrote a famous essay—I, Pencil—more than 50 years ago (in 1958 to be exact) about the complexities of business and industry. Read’s primary point, according to the Introduction is that “economies can hardly be ‘planned’ when not one soul possesses all the know-how and skills to produce a simple pencil.” Written as the “life story” of a lead pencil, Read’s thesis is as shocking as it is profound:

You may wonder why I should write a genealogy… Sadly, I am taken for granted by those who use me, as if I were a mere incident and without background… I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove… 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.

Read intended to show the inability of central planning to produce anything of value, compared to the abilities of the free-market to manufacture even the simplest of items. His bold claim that no one individual on earth possessed the knowledge or ability to create an ordinary, average pencil from scratch sounds foolish at first, yet becomes the model of understatement before the short essay’s concluding paragraph.

In the Afterword to the 50th Anniversary Edition of I, Pencil, Milton Friedman had this to say:

None of the thousands of persons involved in producing the pencil performed his task because he wanted a pencil… No one sitting in a central office gave orders to these thousands of people. No military police enforced the orders that were not given. These people live in many lands, speak different languages, practice different religions, may even hate one another—yet none of these differences prevented them from cooperating to produce a pencil. How did it happen? Adam Smith gave us the answer two hundred years ago.

Adam Smith’s theory of the “invisible hand” is what Friedman is referring to, which he summarizes as being “cooperation without coercion”—meaning that “human freedom requires private property, free competition, and severely limited government.” It is this basic principle that motivated not only Adam Smith, Leonard Read, and Milton Friedman, but also the vast majority of the American Founding Fathers. Freedom was not an ideological buzzword; it was a real-life, dead-serious, and important enough idea to go to war over. In fact, it was so important to them that they were willing to risk their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honors.” Freedom is foundational to the American experiment in liberty. Without freedom—both of ideas and actions—men becomes slaves.