"I, Pencil’s" Faith in Freedom

In celebration of the 60th anniversary of "I, Pencil," it's worth revisiting Leonard Read's identification that "faith in free people" is indispensable to a free society.

This is the first in a series of essays throughout the month of December 2018 celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the essay "I, Pencil" by Leonard Read.

Sixty years ago this month—December 1958—a now-classic and well-known essay debuted before the world. It was titled "I, Pencil." Written as though the author was the subject, we all know that it wasn’t the pencil who did the writing. It was, of course, FEE’s venerable founder, Leonard E. Read.

If you haven’t yet read it, please do so at your earliest convenience. You can find it right here. As I explained in the Introduction to the most recent editions of the essay,

Ideas are most powerful when they’re wrapped in a compelling story. Leonard’s main point—economies can hardly be “planned” when not one soul possesses all the know-how and skills to produce a simple pencil—unfolds in the enchanting words of a pencil itself. Leonard could have written “I, Car” or “I, Airplane,” but choosing those more complex items would have muted the message. No one person—repeat, no one, no matter how smart or how many degrees follow his name—could create from scratch a small, everyday pencil, let alone a car or an airplane.

"I, Pencil" teaches multiple principles: A simple pencil isn’t so simple after all. Since you and I can’t make one all on our own, we’re smoking some bad weed if we think we can solitarily accomplish things even more complex. Intellectual humility is a necessity if we are to understand the world and embrace personal growth. Freedom is required if we expect inventions and production to materialize. By encouraging cooperation between people far apart and personally unbeknownst to each other, markets perform miracles every moment of every day.

Anticipating this anniversary occasion, I re-read "I, Pencil" for the umpteenth time. My purpose was to mine it for any additional insights I hadn’t fully appreciated before. Sure enough, I found one. It’s within this passage:

…[I]f one is aware that these know-hows will naturally, yes, automatically, arrange themselves into creative and productive patterns in response to human necessity and demand—that is, in the absence of governmental or any other coercive master-minding—then one will possess an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: a faith in free people. Freedom is impossible without this faith.

That’s strong language. Leonard identifies “faith in free people” as more than simply important to freedom. He identifies it as indispensable. No faith, no freedom. Can this be literally true or was he exaggerating?

Isn't Faith Just Uninformed Belief?

Some might dismiss such talk as mystical nonsense. It’s taken for granted in certain intellectual circles that “faith” is unscientific, perhaps even anti-scientific. That view is most often associated with critiques of one religion or another (or all religions). Leonard uses the term in a special context: The focus of “faith” is on what free people will do rather than on a Supreme Being, but the two are not so different. Each kind of faith represents a firm belief in something for which there may seem at the moment to be no incontrovertible proof, no hard or incontestable evidence derived from our senses, and each is believed with especially strong conviction.

Being blind and deaf doesn’t mean there aren’t things to be seen and heard.

Scientists employ human logic, reason and objective standards of evidence to determine “proof.” But they surmise, hypothesize, conjecture, and extrapolate all the time. And the good ones understand, as astronomer Carl Sagan put it, that “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” To assume that it doesn’t exist if we can’t see it, touch it, or hear it could well be arrogant and presumptuous. After all, being blind and deaf doesn’t mean there aren’t things to be seen and heard.

A critic of Leonard’s categorical statement about “faith in free people” might say that the past is not prologue, that the future is unknowable and nothing about the past guarantees anything about the future. Maybe free people won’t undertake the creative, productive activities Leonard assures us they will. They might decide en masse to take a permanent vacation. Then perhaps it will be necessary to unfree them to get things done, that is, somebody will have to crack the whip.

At that point, faith would not evaporate. Its object would simply transfer from free people to those with the whips—the central planners, the know-it-alls, the self-anointed who claim for themselves the right to rule others. With no guarantee of future performance (and likely minimal penalty for lack thereof), these schemers with power would demand that the rest of us have faith in their wisdom.

I say no thanks to that! As the late William F. Buckley Jr. put it, “Government can’t do anything for you except in proportion as it can do something to you.”

Beware of the Self-Anointed 

Frederic Bastiat, author of The Law, which Leonard Read played a key role in bringing to 20th Century audiences, said it even better:

If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind? The organizers maintain that society, when left undirected, rushes headlong to its inevitable destruction because the instincts of the people are so perverse. The legislators claim to stop this suicidal course and to give it a saner direction. Apparently, then, the legislators and the organizers have received from Heaven an intelligence and virtue that place them beyond and above mankind; if so, let them show their titles to this superiority.

They would be the shepherds over us, their sheep. Certainly, such an arrangement presupposes that they are naturally superior to the rest of us. And certainly, we are fully justified in demanding from the legislators and organizers proof of this natural superiority.”

If [the self-anointed] aren’t already corrupted before they attain power, then power will surely corrupt them.

No such proof, of course, has ever been offered (lots of claims to it, yes, but no proof). Quite the contrary, the track record of the self-anointed is lousy. If they aren’t already corrupted before they attain power, then power will surely corrupt them. They always promise omelets, but they only break eggs.

Faith in free people, on the other hand, is rooted in our best understanding of basic human nature: Men and women act to improve their well-being. They do so by creating wealth and offering it to others in trade. They respond to incentives and disincentives. The great majority derive satisfaction not only from the utility provided by goods and services but from the joy that comes from the act of wealth creation. Unleash their creative energies and they put them to work!

Leonard’s faith in free people also enjoys a track record that outshines any of the whip-crackers by a country mile. It’s on full display here in an old essay written by the late John C. Sparks, a former FEE president and long-time trustee. Published by FEE in 1954 and again later in 1977, it brilliantly reinforces Leonard’s call to trust what free people can accomplish:

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If Men Were Free to Try

By John C. Sparks

Private ownership, private initiative, the hope of reward, and the expectation of achievement have always been primarily responsible for the advancement of mankind. Continued progress—be it spiritual, mental, or material—rests squarely upon a better understanding of the idea of individual freedom of choice and action, with personal responsibility for one’s own decisions.

For the purpose of illustrating this idea, let us suppose you had lived in 1900 and somehow were confronted with the problem of seeking a solution to any one of the following problems:

  1. To build and maintain roads adequate for use of conveyances, their operators, and passengers.
  2. To increase the average span of life by 30 years.
  3. To convey instantly the sound of a voice speaking at one place to any other point or any number of points around the world.
  4. To convey instantly the visual replica of an action, such as a presidential inauguration, to men and women in their living rooms all over America.
  5. To develop a medical preventive against death from pneumonia.
  6. To transport physically a person from Los Angeles to New York in less than four hours.
  7. To build a horseless carriage of the qualities and capabilities described in the latest advertising folder of any automobile manufacturer.

Without much doubt you would have selected the first problem as the one easiest of solution. In fact, the other problems would have seemed fantastic and quite likely would have been rejected as the figments of someone’s wild imagination.

It is not accidental that solutions have been found wherever the atmosphere of freedom and private ownership has prevailed.

Now, let us see which of these problems has been solved to date. Has the easiest problem been solved? No. Have the seemingly fantastic problems been solved? Yes, and we hardly give them a second thought.

It is not accidental that solutions have been found wherever the atmosphere of freedom and private ownership has prevailed wherein men could try out their ideas and succeed or fail on their own worthiness. Nor is it accidental that the coercive force of government—when hooked up to a creative field such as transportation—has been slow, plodding, and unimaginative in maintaining and replacing its facilities.

A Better Road

Does it not seem odd that a privately owned automobile company found it expedient to sponsor a national contest with tremendous prizes and to conduct its own search in order to correct the faults of the publicly owned and inadequate highway system? The highway dilemma has become more and more acute until someone other than the public owner has sought an answer. If the points of ownership had been reversed in 1900—that is, motorcar development in the hands of the government, and highways left to private individuals—we would have likely participated in a contest sponsored It is not until an activity has been freed from monopoly that creative thought comes into play. by the privately owned highway companies to suggest how to improve the government’s horseless carriage so that it would keep pace with the fine and more-than-adequate highways. 

How could roads be built and operated privately? I do not know. This is a subject to which none of us directs his creative attention. We never do think creatively on any activity pre-empted by government. It is not until an activity has been freed from monopoly that creative thought comes into play. 

But go back to 1900. Could any of us then have told how to solve the six problems to which solutions have been found? Suppose, for instance, that someone could at that time have described the looks and performance of the latest model automobile. Could any of us have told him how to make it? No, no more than we can describe how privately to build and operate highways today. 

What accounts, then, for the present automobile and other “fantastic” accomplishments? Government did not pre-empt these activities! Instead, these have been left to the area of free, uninhibited, creative thinking. Millions of man–hours of technically skilled, inventive thought have been at work. And the end is not yet. Nor will there be an end as long as the inhibitory influence of government is confined to its proper functions of protecting equally the life, liberty, and property of all citizens––as long as men are free to try their ideas in a competitive and voluntary market. 

More by Lawrence W. Reed

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