I, Pencil

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That’s Peaceful: The Case for the Free Market
, 1964

As I sat contemplating
the miraculous make-up of an ordinary lead pencil, the thought flashed
in mind: I’ll bet there isn’t a person on earth who knows how
to make even so simple a thing as a pencil.

If this could
be demonstrated, it would dramatically portray the miracle of the
market and would help to make clear that all manufactured things
are but manifestations of creative-energy exchanges, that these
are, in fact, spiritual phenomena. The lessons in political economy
this could teach!

There followed
that not-to-be-forgotten day at the pencil factory, beginning at
the receiving dock, covering every phase of countless transformations,
and concluding in an interview with the chemist.

Had you seen
what I saw, you, also, might have struck up a warm friendship with
that amazing character, I, PENCIL.1

Being a writer
in his own right, let I, PENCIL speak for himself:

I am a lead
pencil – the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to all boys and
girls and adults who can read and write.

Writing is
both my vocation and my avocation; that’s all I do.

You may wonder
why I should write a genealogy. Well, to begin with, my story is
interesting. And, next, I am a mystery – more so than a tree
or a sunset or even a flash of lightning. But, sadly, I am taken
for granted by those who use me, as if I were a mere incident and
without background. This supercilious attitude relegates me to the
level of the commonplace. This is a species of the grievous error
in which mankind cannot too long persist without peril. For, the
wise G.K. Chesterton observed, "We are perishing for want of
wonder, not for want of wonders."

I, Pencil,
simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim
I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me –
no, that’s too much to ask of anyone – if you can become aware
of the miraculousness that I symbolize, you can help save the freedom
mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach.
And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an
airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because – well, because
I am seemingly so simple.

Simple? Yet,
not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make
me. This sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Especially when it is realized
that there are about one and one-half billion of my kind produced
in the United States each year.

Pick me up
and look me over. What do you see? Not much meets the eye –
there’s some wood, lacquer, the printed labeling, graphite lead,
a bit of metal, and an eraser.


Just as you
cannot trace your family tree back very far, so is it impossible
for me to name and explain all my antecedents. But I would like
to suggest enough of them to impress upon you the richness and complexity
of my background.

My family tree
begins with what in fact is a tree, a cedar of straight grain that
grows in Northern California and Oregon. Now contemplate all the
saws and trucks and rope and the countless other gear used in harvesting
and carting the cedar logs to the railroad siding. Think of all
the persons and the numberless skills that went into their fabrication:
the mining of ore, the making of steel and its refinement into saws,
axes, motors; the growing of hemp and bringing it through all the
stages to heavy and strong rope; the logging camps with their beds
and mess halls, the cookery and the raising of all the foods. Why,
untold thousands of persons had a hand in every cup of coffee the
loggers drink!

The logs are
shipped to a mill in San Leandro, California. Can you imagine the
individuals who make flat cars and rails and railroad engines and
who construct and install the communication systems incidental thereto?
These legions are among my antecedents.

Consider the
millwork in San Leandro. The cedar logs are cut into small, pencil-length
slats less than one-fourth of an inch in thickness. These are kiln
dried and then tinted for the same reason women put rouge on their
faces. People prefer that I look pretty, not a pallid white. The
slats are waxed and kiln dried again. How many skills went into
the making of the tint and the kilns, into supplying the heat, the
light and power, the belts, motors, and all the other things a mill
requires? Sweepers in the mill among my ancestors? Yes, and included
are the men who poured the concrete for the dam of a Pacific Gas
& Electric Company hydroplant, which supplies the mill’s power!

Don’t overlook
the ancestors present and distant who have a hand in transporting
60 carloads of slats across the nation.

Once in the
pencil factory – $4,000,000 in machinery and building, all
capital accumulated by thrifty and saving parents of mine –
each slat is given eight grooves by a complex machine, after which
another machine lays leads in every other slat, applies glue, and
places another slat atop – a lead sandwich, so to speak. Seven
brothers and I are mechanically carved from this "wood-clinched"

My "lead"
itself – it contains no lead at all – is complex. The
graphite is mined in Ceylon.
Consider these miners and those who make their many tools and the
makers of the paper sacks in which the graphite is shipped and those
who make the string that ties the sacks and those who put them aboard
ships and those who make the ships. Even the lighthouse keepers
along the way assisted in my birth – and the harbor pilots.

The graphite
is mixed with clay from Mississippi in which ammonium hydroxide
is used in the refining process. Then wetting agents are added such
as sulfonated tallow – animal fats chemically reacted with
sulfuric acid. After passing through numerous machines, the mixture
finally appears as endless extrusions – as from a sausage grinder
– cut to size, dried, and baked for several hours at 1,850
degrees Fahrenheit. To increase their strength and smoothness the
leads are then treated with a hot mixture that includes candelilla
wax from Mexico, paraffin wax, and hydrogenated natural fats.

My cedar receives
six coats of lacquer. Do you know all the ingredients of lacquer?
Who would think that the growers of castor beans and the refiners
of castor oil are a part of it? They are. Why, even the processes
by which the lacquer is made a beautiful yellow involve the skills
of more persons than one can enumerate!

Observe the
labeling. That’s a film formed by applying heat to carbon black
mixed with resins. How do you make resins and what, pray, is carbon

My bit of metal
– the ferrule – is brass. Think of all the persons who
mine zinc and copper and those who have the skills to make shiny
sheet brass from these products of nature. Those black rings on
my ferrule are black nickel. What is black nickel and how is it
applied? The complete story of why the center of my ferrule has
no black nickel on it would take pages to explain.

Then there’s
my crowning glory, inelegantly referred to in the trade as "the
plug," the part man uses to erase the errors he makes with
me. An ingredient called "factice" is what does the erasing.
It is a rubberlike product made by reacting rapeseed oil from the
Dutch East
with sulfur chloride. Rubber, contrary to the common
notion, is only for binding purposes. Then, too, there are numerous
vulcanizing and accelerating agents. The pumice comes from Italy;
and the pigment that gives "the plug" its color is cadmium

No One Knows

Does anyone
wish to challenge my earlier assertion that no single person on
the face of this earth knows how to make me?

Actually, millions
of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even
knows more than a very few of the others. Now, you may say that
I go too far in relating the picker of a coffee berry in far-off
Brazil and food growers elsewhere to my creation; that this is an
extreme position. I shall stand by my claim. There isn’t a single
person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil
company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of
know-how. From the standpoint of know-how the only difference between
the miner of graphite in Ceylon and the logger in Oregon is in the
type of know-how. Neither the miner nor the logger can be dispensed
with, any more than can the chemist at the factory or the worker
in the oil field – paraffin being a byproduct of petroleum.

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. Indeed, there
are some among this vast multitude who never saw a pencil nor would
they know how to use one. Their motivation is other than me. Perhaps
it is something like this: each of these millions sees that he can
thus exchange his tiny know-how for the goods and services he needs
or wants. I may or may not be among these items.

No Mastermind

There is a
fact still more astounding: the absence of a mastermind, of anyone
dictating or forcibly directing these countless actions which bring
me into being. No trace of such a person can be found. Instead,
we find the Invisible Hand at work. This is the mystery to which
I earlier referred.

It has been
said that "only God can make a tree." Why do we agree
with this? Isn’t it because we realize that we ourselves could not
make one? Indeed, can we even describe a tree? We cannot, except
in superficial terms. We can say, for instance, that a certain molecular
configuration manifests itself as a tree. But what mind is there
among men that could even record, let alone direct, the constant
changes in molecules that transpire in the life span of a tree?
Such a feat is utterly unthinkable!

I, Pencil,
am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite,
and so on. But to these miracles that manifest themselves in nature
an even-more-extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration
of creative human energies – millions of tiny know-hows configurating
naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire
and in the absence of any human masterminding! Since only God can
make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more
direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he
can put molecules together to create a tree.

The above is
what I meant when writing, "If you can become aware of the
miraculousness that I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind
is so unhappily losing." For, if 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
masterminding – then one will possess an absolutely essential
ingredient for freedom: a faith in free people. Freedom is impossible
without this faith.

Once government
has had a monopoly of a creative activity such, for instance, as
the delivery of the mails, most individuals will believe that the
mails could not be efficiently delivered by men acting freely. And
here is the reason: each one acknowledges that he himself doesn’t
know how to do all the things incident to mail delivery. He also
recognizes that no other individual could do it. These assumptions
are correct. No individual possesses enough know-how to perform
a nation’s mail delivery any more than any individual possesses
enough know-how to make a pencil. Now, in the absence of faith in
free people – in the unawareness that millions of tiny know-hows
would naturally and miraculously form and cooperate to satisfy this
necessity – the individual cannot help but reach the erroneous
conclusion that mail can be delivered only by governmental "masterminding."


If I, Pencil,
were the only item that could offer testimony on what men and women
can accomplish when free to try, then those with little faith would
have a fair case. However, there is testimony galore; it’s all about
us and on every hand. Mail delivery is exceedingly simple when compared,
for instance, to the making of an automobile or a calculating machine
or a grain combine or a milling machine or to tens of thousands
of other things.

Delivery? Why,
in this area where men have been left free to try, they deliver
the human voice around the world in less than one second; they deliver
an event visually and in motion to any person’s home when it is
happening; they deliver 150 passengers from Seattle to Baltimore
in less than four hours; they deliver gas from Texas to one’s range
or furnace in New York at unbelievably low rates and without subsidy;
they deliver each four pounds of oil from the Persian Gulf to our
Eastern Seaboard – halfway around the world – for less
money than the government charges for delivering a one-ounce letter
across the street!

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. Have faith that
free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith
will be confirmed. I, Pencil, seemingly simple though I am, offer
the miracle of my creation as testimony that this is a practical
faith, as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the good


  1. His official
    name is "Mongol 482." His many ingredients are assembled,
    fabricated, and finished by Eberhard Faber Pencil Company, Wilkes-Barre,

E. Read was the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education
— a pioneer libertarian educational organization. He sponsored
the publication of Ludwig von Mises’s Human Action, and help revive
the libertarian movement in the US after World War II. See
his books here.

Best of Murray Rothbard

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