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The Miracle and Complexity of a Pencil

The Competitive Enterprise Institute has released a new, video short edition of the classic essay, “I, Pencil.” Take a look. Then I’ll tell you what I think, and I’d love for you to tell me what you think. The film emphasizes the complexity of our world—and not just the natural world, which itself is wondrous beyond thought—but of the socioeconomic world. It demonstrates how free economies depend on voluntary cooperation. It reminds me of the arrogance and disdain with which I approach even tiny objects and interactions like a pencil. “Oh, just a pencil,” I think. I don’t regard myself as a member of the intellectual or economic elite (my dad was a farmer who didn’t finish college), but often I think like them. Perhaps that’s because their pomposity invades every corner of our culture—and, indeed, our sin nature. Elites and even ordinary folks often think “experts” (i.e. the elites themselves) can fix all sorts of ills with enough control over the economy or populace. “Ah, it’s so simple to fix healthcare—just require employers to cover workers and subsidize people who don’t work.” Yes, one 2,700-page bill ought to take care of that. Yet it would take a life of work for one person to generate one pencil like the one inside my desk drawer at this moment, which you can buy for about 20 cents. He would have to collect rubber and cut down trees, both of which require specialized materials and come from different parts of the world. And that’s just to get started. Imagine what goes into creating one CAT scanner or even stethoscope. An economy is an ecosystem, a living organism. It can be sick, free or enslaved. It could be spontaneous, creative cooperation produced by people pursuing their individual interests. Or not.