≡ Menu

More on Leonard Read’s “I, Pencil”

I thank my treasured colleague Pete Boettke for joining in, at his Facebook page, to defend Leonard Read against the ridiculous charge of believing that the economic process of producing pencils is the product of divine intervention. This charge is so over-the-top absurd that it serves only as evidence of the pathetically poor reading skills of those who make it.

In addition to my earlier essay, it occurs to me to make one other point on this front. I first read “I, Pencil” in 1977. Since then, I’ve seen it referenced thousands of times by dozens of different writers and speakers. Not once did any of these writers or speakers suggest that in writing “I, Pencil” Read was describing the work of god.

Also, I was president from July 1997 through July 2001 of the organization founded in 1946 by Read, the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). For those four years I worked literally in the same office in which Read sat to write “I, Pencil.” In my capacity as FEE’s president, I met many people who knew Read personally, and a few of whom worked for him. Unsurprisingly, the topic of “I, Pencil” came up in discussion frequently. Not once did I encounter anyone who interpreted that essay in the bizarre way that it is interpreted by the two intellectuals to whom I refer in this earlier post.

As FEE’s president I also gave countless talks in which “I, Pencil” was named and played a prominent role. Often in attendance at these talks were people such as Bettina Bien Greaves, the Rev. Ed Opitz, and Read’s long-time secretary Jeanette Brown, all of whom worked for FEE during Read’s time at the helm. Other individuals who I distinctly remember being in the audience for at least one of my talks include former FEE trustees Ethelmae Humphreys, Israel Kirzner, Manuel Ayau, Bill Law, Don Foote, Andrea Rich, Pete Peters, Harry Langenberg, Bill Speakman, Bob Love, and Stu Pritchard – each of whom knew Leonard Read personally and revered his memory. Relevantly here, several of these individuals were devoutly religious. Had I or any other FEE speaker (or writer) falsely portrayed the message of “I, Pencil” I’m certain that I would have heard of this offense.

Yet having from the start understood “I, Pencil” to be a celebration of the fact that multitudes of strangers are directed, not by god, but by market prices to cooperate with each other not only productively, but also in a manner so complex that no human mind can possibly understand in full the details of this cooperation, I always spoke about “I, Pencil” as being an essay about the marvels of the market price system. Never did it remotely occur to me to suggest that this essay is about the handiwork of god. Had I ever so mis-portrayed this essay, I would have been swiftly corrected by many of those persons who knew Leonard Read. And had I resisted being so corrected, I likely would have been fired – deservedly so – by FEE’s board for utter incompetence.