Intellectuals Who Can’t Read

by Don Boudreaux on January 15, 2023

in Adam Smith, Complexity & Emergence, Myths and Fallacies, Video

On his Facebook page, Phil Magness rightly criticizes two intellectuals whose interpretation of Leonard Read’s famous 1958 essay “I, Pencil” is hilariously mistaken. To assert or even to suggest that Read’s argument is that pencils (or pencil-making processes) are made by god is to display a level of reading comprehension that would embarrass a pre-schooler. I’ll not be surprised if these ‘scholars’ soon accuse Milton Friedman – who in his documentary (see below), and book, Free To Choose, famously used Read’s account of the production of pencils – of also believing that pencils are produced by god. I’m led to say about these intellectuals essentially what I said in this earlier post about Jacob Soll and his whackadoodle interpretation of Adam Smith:

The only three possible explanations for these intellectuals’ bizarre interpretation of Leonard Read’s “I, Pencil” is that (1) these intellectuals are illiterate; (2) these intellectuals intentionally mischaracterized Read’s argument; or (3) despite posing to the contrary, these intellectuals didn’t actually read Leonard Read’s essay in full or with even the minimum of attention required of individuals who choose to write about Read’s essay. Because both (2) and (3) imply a moral failing while (1) implies only an intellectual failing – and because, without evidence to the contrary, it’s always best to attribute error to a failure of the intellect rather than to unethical intent – I conclude that these intellectuals really can’t read all that well.

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These intellectuals likely also believe that Adam Smith – who wrote “By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention” – believed that a literal invisible hand is at work directing people’s economic affairs. After all, Smith wrote about the investor that he is “led by an invisible hand.” Smith didn’t qualify “invisible hand.” Nor did Smith bother to tell his readers “Hey, by the way, I’m here using what is called ‘a metaphor.'” Smith understandably addressed his writings to people with reading comprehension. So, too, did Leonard Read.

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