I was 35,000 feet in the air when the ground dropped out from under me. I was twenty years old, and I thought I understood everything. In the course of a two-hour flight, everything I understood about myself, the world, and my place in it fell to dust. Why? Because of a ten-page essay: "I, Pencil."
The 60th anniversary of the publication of "I, Pencil" is this month. There are millions of people around the world who can explain the intellectual appeal of this legendary essay, the foundation of all that we do at FEE. "I, Pencil" makes a deeply academic case, but that’s not how it changed my life. "I, Pencil" changed my life because it changed my heart.
My Intellectual Journey
My name is Tricia Beck-Peter, and I work at FEE. That means that I’ve devoted my life to making the principles of a free society familiar, credible, and compelling to the rising generation. Before that, and before the aforementioned flight, I was an authoritarian. I believed most people were incapable of making I saw myself as the central planner who could create a perfect system.the right choices for themselves and that the role of government was to protect the masses from their own stupidity. Government was more powerful than individuals and was the driving force of good in our country.
Furthermore, I believed that it was the duty of the smartest among us to work for the government and to help protect people from themselves. Of course, I saw myself as one of those people, the central planner who could create a perfect system.
Believing these things didn’t just make me wrong, it created a darkness in my soul. I was arrogant bordering on cruel. I saw my fellow humans as problems to be solved. People were bad, and government created the means to protect them from their vice and ineptitude. I looked at the world around me with contempt and pity. They were bad, but I could save them.
Or I thought I could, until the day I learned I couldn’t make a pencil. I had spent ten years believing I could build a better economic system. Ten years thinking I could choose better for others than they could for themselves. Ten years of superiority and condescension shattered because of a 10-page essay.
"I, Pencil" as a Paradigm Shift
It’s hard to be arrogant when you realize that, as smart as you are, you can’t make a pencil. That changes the way you look at the world. Suddenly, everything man-made around you is transformed into a miracle. Suddenly, each tiny thing connects you to the millions of strangers who unknowingly cooperated to bring your world into being.
Everything you touch, everything you love, is created by people you’ll never meet. People who didn’t wake up with the goal of making your life better, but of providing for their own families, made your life better in more ways than you will ever comprehend. These people know things you will never learn—maybe even things you’d consider beneath you: mining, factory work, sanitation. Many of these people are less educated than you and make less money than you. There is a societal narrative that tells you you’re superior to them but your world would not exist without them.
There is no work that does not improve the lives of others, even work as humble as mining the graphite for a pencil’s lead.
"I, Pencil" opened my eyes to an honest to goodness miracle: that each and every person can make the world better through their own unique skills and experiences. The dignity and worth of each individual stems from their ability to improve the world by being themselves and pursuing that which improves the lives of others. There is no work that does not improve the lives of others, even work as humble as mining the graphite for a pencil’s lead. Capitalism, a system I once held in contempt, allows us to create value for others in our own unique way and be rewarded for it. Every dollar we earn is a thank you from someone who benefited from our work. Every dollar we spend is a thank you to the people who created that which we buy.
Seeing all of this for the first time was like Dorothy stepping into Oz: The world was bright and meaningful in ways I had never imagined. Gratitude flooded my heart like warm sunshine, and the light vanquished all the darkness of my arrogance. Each and every person I met, and millions of people I never would meet, created the world that I loved. I couldn’t plan for them because they knew what they needed better than I did. Eventually, I didn’t want to plan for them. I wanted to protect their rights to plan for themselves. My life came to be defined by a fierce love for the people I had once sneered at.
Because of the intellectual journey that "I, Pencil" initiated, I changed the course of my life. I abandoned my political ambitions and plans to become a central planner. I dove into public choice economics, philosophy, and free-market ideas. After I graduated, I applied for an internship at FEE and later joined the team, dedicating my life to our mission. Almost everything that I am, that I have, that I believe, started with reading "I, Pencil." I have become aware of the miraculousness symbolized by a pencil, and because of it, committed my life to save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. It has made all the difference.