Celebrate Leonard Read's Birthday by Reading His Classic Essay

Happy birthday, Mr. Read!

One of the best-known members of the libertarian movement is Leonard E. Read. Although he's no longer with us, today is his birthday. Seems like a good reason to celebrate the work of this great mind (and as much cake as you want — we won't judge).

Leonard E. Read (the E stands for Edward, in case you were wondering) started in economics by running a grocery wholesale business before becoming active in his local Chamber of Commerce. By 1939 he was General Manager of the L.A. branch of the United States Chamber of Commerce. I first heard about his work in the 1950's and it went on to influence me while the man himself became a mentor. You can read about it here.

Mr. Read created one of the world's leading economic think tanks — the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). He also wrote 29 books and a truckload of essays. However, his best-known piece of writing would have to be I, Pencil. We’ve broken down the main gist here but the full essay is worth a read if you have the time (it’s only around 2000 words).

Know this:

I, Pencil is written from the point of view of a pencil, describing its inception from raw materials all the way to it being used to create something much bigger than itself. If you don't want to read the essay, or prefer a visual representation, check out the I, Pencil movie by the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

The humble pencil may not be used as much today as it was in 1958 but the concept can be applied to pens, iPhones, or any other communication tool. Do you know how to make a pencil? Like, could you actually make a pencil by yourself? No, it takes a long chain of steps and input from many people to make a pencil. Now compare the pencil-making process to free-market economics. As the man himself states:

Here is an astounding fact: Neither the worker in the oil field nor the chemist nor the digger of graphite or clay nor any who mans or makes the ships or trains or trucks nor the one who runs the machine that does the knurling on my bit of metal nor the president of the company performs his singular task because he wants me. Each one wants me less, perhaps, than does a child in the first grade.

Mind. Blown.

The Invisible Hand

The process of pencil-making is an example of the invisible hand, with no one person or entity overlooking the creation. Separate roles come together to form the pencil. “Actually," says Read, "millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, not one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others.”

The main theme here is that no central planning is needed to make a pencil or any other object. The knowledge lies with more than one person, government, or company. Read's advice is as follows:

“The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited. Merely organize society to act in harmony with this lesson. Let society's legal apparatus remove all obstacles the best it can. Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow.”

Perhaps this gives insight into the popularity of his work. Mr. Read’s ideas have spread widely across the world over the past 100 years with other leaders such as Ronald Reagan and even me, Ron Manners, being influenced and inspired by his thoughts on freedom and economics.

We've only covered the most basic aspects of the essay and Mr. Read's work here. What do you get from I, Pencil? Does its message still ring true today? Why/Why not? Include your responses or any questions you have in the comment section below.

  • I, Pencil (full title is I, Pencil: My Family Tree as Told to Leonard E. Read) was published in The Freeman in 1958 and has been reprinted in many different formats, many times. Milton Friedman, another libertarian you’ve undoubtedly heard of, used the essay in his book and TV show Free to Choose. We’ve shared a great copy of the essay by FEE through the links here.

Further Reading

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