Tom Purcell: Erasing capitalism? Consider the pencil first |
Tom Purcell, Columnist

Tom Purcell: Erasing capitalism? Consider the pencil first

Socialism is back in vogue in some quarters.

According to the website of dictionary maker Merriam-Webster, socialism is a political theory that advocates “governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.”

The concept is that government central planners can make really smart decisions to distribute our collective wealth in a manner that benefits all. But socialism never works, because nobody is smart enough to make such incredibly complex decisions.

Leonard Read explained this clearly in a 1958 essay, “I, Pencil.”

You see, the standard pencil begins when a cedar is cut down and crews using ropes and gear tug it onto a truck or rail car.

Numberless people and skills are involved in mining ore to produce steel and refine it into saws, axes and motors, wrote Read.

The logs are shipped to a mill and cut into slats. The slats are kiln-dried, tinted, waxed, then kiln-dried again.

Read wondered how many skills were needed to produce the tint and the kilns. What about the electric power? And the mill’s belts, motors and other parts?

The slats are shipped to a pencil factory. A complex machine cuts grooves into each slat. Then another machine lays graphite into every other slat. Glue is applied. Two slats — one with graphite, one without — are sealed together, then cut to pencil length. Each pencil receives six coats of lacquer.

Complex processes employ thousands who create the graphite and lacquer.

Each pencil eraser’s brass holder is a marvel. First, miners extract zinc and copper from the Earth. Experts transform those materials into sheet brass, which is cut, stamped and affixed to the pencil.

The eraser, wrote Read, is made from “factice,” a rubber-like material produced when rapeseed oil from the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) reacts with sulfur chloride.

To be sure, an awe-inspiring amount of work goes into producing a pencil. Millions collaborate to produce it, plying unique trades and skills, yet have no idea they are collaborating.

Even more amazing is this: No one person could possibly manage the millions of decisions made by the millions of people who produce pencils’ ingredients.

Despite the absence of a mastermind — or government central planners — billions of pencils are produced every year with such humdrum efficiency that we take pencils for granted.

The pencil, explained Read, is a triumph of human freedom — of creative energies spontaneously responding to necessity and desire.

Without even one centrally planned government program, the need for pencils arose. Without any meddling from a presidential candidate or member of Congress advocating socialism, pencils were invented, produced and sold, meeting the demand for them.

There’s a reason that the United States is the wealthiest country in history. Do we have challenges? Sure — capitalism is not perfect, and we must never stop working to resolve our challenges.

But it’s worrisome that, according to Gallup, capitalism is fast losing favor, with 51 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds now favoring socialism.

Read concluded his “I, Pencil” essay with this advice: The best thing our government can do is leave our creative energies uninhibited — by removing obstacles that keep creativity and innovation from flowing freely.

His recommendation is the polar opposite of socialist central-planning policies. Let’s hope our younger generation comes to its senses before it votes people espousing failed ideas into the highest levels of our government.

Freelance writer Tom Purcell of Library is author of “Misadventures of a 1970s Childhood.” Visit him on the web at

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