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Monday, December 31, 2018

Milton Friedman Reveals the Humbling Truth of “I, Pencil” in Just Two Minutes

"I, Pencil" was a clarion call for humility (intellectual and economic).

About 15 years ago, while working at a little free-market think tank in the Midwest, I was having a conversation with an intelligent, pedantic co-worker. When he brought up the classic book “I, Pencil,” I must have had a blank look on my face.

“You haven’t read it?” he asked.

The embarrassing truth was that I had never even heard of the book. When I shared this fact with my colleague, his countenance twisted a little. I can’t be sure if it was shock, pity, or contempt that crossed his face—perhaps it was all three. (What can I say? Schools these days.)

The episode was a trifle embarrassing, but it had no lasting emotional impact on me. I set out to read Mr. Read’s book—which I did, if somewhat hastily. I enjoyed the book but thought little about “I, Pencil” after that for many years.

A New Chapter 

That changed when I came to FEE in 2018. “I, Pencil,” of course, was written by FEE’s co-founder, the great Leonard Read. The book is part of our organization’s history and legacy. (When people ask what I do for a living, I almost invariably mention this famous work.)

As many readers know, December marks the 60th anniversary of “I, Pencil.” For weeks I’ve thought about what I’d like to say to honor this important work. But this has proven trickier than I thought for a couple of reasons.

First, many FEE writers have contributed wonderful stories on “I, Pencil” in recent weeks (here, here, here, and here). This sets a rather high bar for the writer seeking to share unique, compelling insights.

Humans, in our hubris, take the miracles of our world for granted.

Second, as can be gleaned from the narrative above, “I, Pencil” came to me relatively late in life. As such, the book’s message was not an epiphany; I had already been “converted,” so to speak. The book’s central thesis—that no single human in history could produce something as simple as a pencil by herself—merely affirmed what I already believed: that humans, in our hubris, take the miracles of our world for granted and have little knowledge of or appreciation for what it takes to produce the fruits we enjoy daily.

Looking back on “I, Pencil” years later, what strikes me is the book’s lovely humility. Let’s not forget that “I, Pencil” was published in 1958, less than a year after Sputnik 1 was launched into space and the same year America responded with Explorer 1. The Space Race that ensued was one of the most exciting periods in US history but one that also nurtured the belief that human genius could do anything—even conquer space or build a new Babel—if we only had enough experts and resources.

“I, Pencil” and Humility

The message of “I, Pencil” ran counter to this. The book was a clarion call for humility (intellectual and economic). Read showed, in creative fashion, that despite all our feats and all our brilliance, we are incapable of creating even the simplest of tools on our own. Knowledge is dispersed, and the world and its materials infinitely more complex than people realize—even central planners. Read, unlike so many “experts,” was unafraid of these three simple words: I don’t know.

This same message of humility comes through in Milton Friedman’s homage to Read’s work. In a powerful two-minute clip that pays tribute to “I, Pencil,” Friedman acknowledges that he has little idea where the materials came from to create the pencil in his hand.

“This brass ferrule, I haven’t the slightest idea where it came from,” Friedman says. “Or the yellow paint, or the paint that made black lines or the glue that holds it together. Literally, thousands of people cooperated to make this pencil.”

It is this same humility that pervades “I, Pencil.” The book shows us our real place in the scheme of things.

Read’s great work should be read annually to remind us that we alone don’t create wealth. Governments don’t create wealth. People working in voluntary concert, often invisible to one another, create the panoply of goods we enjoy.

It’s a humbling fact, but a true one.

  • Jonathan Miltimore is the Senior Creative Strategist of at the Foundation for Economic Education.