Sunday, January 27, 2008

I, Pencil

We find ourselves engaged in the quadrennial spectacle of politicians promising that if only we elect them to run our government, they'll "fix things" so that, for instance, everyone will have all the health care services they want. Some of our contributors have touched upon the insanity of these promises. In future articles, I'd like to explore in more detail why they never deliver the results they promise, but first it would help to read some foundational material. Fifty years ago, Leonard E. Reed "ghost-wrote" I, Pencil, a first-person narrative of how the simple writing instrument comes to be. Our protagonist makes this extraordinary claim:

Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me. This sounds fantastic, doesn't it? Especially when it is realized that there are about one and one-half billion of my kind produced in the U.S.A. each year.
Read the essay, and ponder the arrogance of those who think a central planner could make sure everyone has pencils, much less health care.


  1. I had read this before, and it's a very interesting read. I wonder if Bill Whittle took any inspiration from this for his "Web of Trust" essay.

    I do disagree with one point, however. The essay asserts that because, for example, no one person knows how to accomplish the delivery of the mails, that it should remain in the purview of the Government. I don't think it has anything to do with people not knowing how such a thing is done. More likely, people would tend to belkieve that the managing of the system could not be done by a smaller entity, and therefore the Government may as well remain the controller of it, because it already has a large controlling presence. Many of us, of course, would argue that the Government has no business being so large in the first place, but it already is, so that's not immediately applicable in this particular instance.

    Another point is that people may not trust their mail to private entities. I would argue (like many others would as well) that I don't trust The Government all that much with my private mails, but they have a monopoly on letter delivery.

    All in all, I think people who think that way see the Government as the solution to Management of large systems, rather than the expertise to produce them.

  2. Wayne, the essay does not assert that the government should deliver mail. It asserts that people think that (emphasis mine):

    "Once government has had a monopoly of a creative activity such, for instance, as the delivery of the mails, most individuals will believe that the mails could not be efficiently delivered by men acting freely."

    Bear in mind that Mr. Read wrote this before FedEx, UPS, and DHL had demonstrated how to efficiently deliver physical packages, and the Internet revolutionized the communication of ideas (largely replacing first-class mailing of "letters"). For a lot of people half a century ago, the idea of private industry doing a better job of delivering mail than the US Post Office Department (as it was then known) wasn't even thinkable.

    Personally, I think the perception that the US Government did something to end the Great Depression, and was powerful enough to defeat Hitler and Tojo combined to give people faith it could do about anything.

  3. Ah, I see. I mistyped that part.

    I didn't meant to say that the article claimed that the Government should deliver mail. I meant to say that the article asserted that it was because no one person understood how to do it that the public believed it. Which is the point I was disagreeing with. I believe that people think only the Government has the scope, not necessarily that only the Government has the know-how to do the job.

  4. Not exactly sure, but I think, with regards to the US Mail, the reasoning for the governent involvment is that no private enterprise would allocate the money to deliver mail to locations where is is unprofitable for a single standard price. Lacking any evidence, given the profit motive, I think this was certainly a valid assumption at the time the US Post was established and remains true today for many locations. While UPS does delliver to my house and maintains a local pickup point, FedEx does not have a presence in my small town. This is because it is not profitable. That is fine for packages but was not considered acceptable for general post in a country attempting to establish a minimum standart of communications. I tend to agree.


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