Friday, June 26, 2009

I, Pencil

Cafe Hayek directed me to this essay, which I enjoyed thoroughly. It is the story of how a pencil is made, which seems boring at first, but the perspective taken illuminates the wonder of free markets beautifully.

Here are some excerpts:

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."
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 by-product of petroleum.
I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which 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 master-minding! 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.
Don Boudreaux adds,
Whenever I hear or read someone proclaim that "the market doesn't work," I try (if the situation permits) to ask him or her how is it that an ordinary pencil exists. Its production requires the cooperation of literally millions of people from around the world. Not one in one-thousand of these people know each other. Many of them, were they to meet, would positively hate each other. And yet, pencils exist in appropriate abundance, and can be acquired almost free of charge. (If you're in the United States, go up to strangers on the street, in shopping malls, or at your school or workplace and ask for a pencil. You'll not wait long before someone gives you one without expecting it to be returned. I do this experiment frequently; it works.)
To be fair, lets not forget to consider the statist take on this whole process:

But, but you need a government person to supervise the transaction. So first we must pass laws, and then create the departments of pencils. Then when someone's pencil tip breaks, they will call their senator and demand government do something about breaking pencil tips. A new set of regulations will appear, with the promise that this time it will fix the problem. The cost of pencils go up, sales go down, and the pencil lobby descends on Washington to add pens to the regulations. The department of pencils gets bigger, but pencil tips keep breaking and wearing out.

I will let someone else finish the story, as it never ends. (from comments @ Cafe Hayek)

I think there is a product out there for each person that will make the idea of "I, Pencil" clear to them. For me it is the existence of the grocery store. The myriad of products, some at incredibly cheap prices, oftentimes appear miraculous to me. The cost of a plastic bag at Wegmans, I am told by the cashier, is 25 cents. The cost of a can of corn, on sale, is 39 cents. That a can of corn - with all the division of labor that went into growing and harvesting the corn, the canning process, designing the label, and being shipped throughout the country - costs marginally more than a plastic bag is in my mind a great wonder in the world.

1 comment:

  1. ...all made possible by economic calculation in the market system.

    As Goethe said "Double entry bookkeeping is one of the most beautiful discoveries of the human spirit..."