Posted by Peter W. Schramm
George Will at his best, explaining how it is that no one can make a pencil.
5:23 PM / September 14, 2008
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Did George Will mention this brilliant little example goes back to Leonard Read, 1958? https://www.econlib.org/LIBRARY/Essays/rdPncl1.html
Ralph, I used that essay when I taught economics to high school students. Actually, we used to have the same talk that Will describes every time I taught economics to high school students, though often I used their expensive and complicated sports shoes as an alternate example. It is really such a simple, wonderful lesson. Only the sophisticated will not understand and complain of absurd reductions, especially when the pencil is the example. High school students are not sophisticated and it is shame that more are not invited to learn simple economic principles. Maybe they would not be such fatheads when they got to college and became sophisticated.
Terrific article, presented in Will's wonderfully disarming, common-sense style.
It's implications are far-reaching and politically seismic, if enough students and voters (and politicians) really considered it.
In addition to the argument based on efficiency or excellence (fine pencil!), the market fulfills the humanitarian dreams of today's liberals more than they know or would care to admit: it's democratic, broadly distributive, inclusive, tolerant, diverse, multilingual, international. If the market can deliver a pencil (or shoes, etc.) better than government can, why can't the same be said about energy or health care? Or fuel-efficient cars? Or jobs?
Try singing this to the tune of "Do not foresake me oh my darlin'" (High Noon theme song). -- copyright ralph hancock 1988. And if that's not enough, try dressing your child up as a pencil and having him/her sing it before hundreds. (My boldest pedagogical venture ever!)
You think I’m just a simple pencil,
Not much to buy not much to see.
But though I’m plain and inexpensive,
I’m a mystery.
Strange, no man knows just how to make me.
Some fell the trees, some make the glue,
Some build an oven just to bake me,
Some cut and groove me,
Some ship and move me,
Some people carry me to you.
Despising me would be a blunder.
My family tree’s a cause of wonder.
Millions of men cooperate
With no master plan.
Eraser oil from Indonesia,
Pumice from Italy just to please ya,
Cedar, clay, graphite, tallow, zinc,
From many lands join to make me.
To make me strangers join their labors.
All trade their work for what they need,
Co-operating as if neighbors.
Few understand them.
No men command them.
The market is the law they heed.