In the December 1958 issue of The Freeman, economics writer and FEE founder Leonard Read published his now-famous essay “I, Pencil.” The essay traced the “family tree” of the modern pencil, demonstrating the complexity of its creation and the numerous people involved. Nobel laureate Milton Friedman was so impressed with the essay that he used it in one of the episodes for his TV series Free to Choose. More recently, science writer Matt Ridley borrowed from the idea by declaring that literally nobody on the face of the planet knows how to build a computer mouse. Despite the individualistic rhetoric that often accompanies markets, Read’s essay provides a much needed reminder that markets on the whole are more communal, more cooperative, and more interdependent than the centralized planning that often employs these rhetorical fronts.
The discussion of the “invisible hand” toward the end is almost spiritual in nature. And with good reason. As Peter Harrison, historian and director of the Centre for the History of European Discourse at the University of Queensland, explains,
[D]uring the early modern period, in addition to increasing frequency of occurrence, we witness the emergence of a more distinct pattern of use or, more correctly perhaps, of two related concepts of the operation of ‘‘the invisible hand.’’ Most commonly the invisible hand was used to refer to the manner in which God exercised providential control over the course of history by subtly influencing human actions in order to bring about his ends. These ends are thus accomplished in spite of the intentions of human actors and without their knowledge. The second pattern of usage also refers to God’s providential action, but in the context of his superintendence of the natural world. Thus God’s invisible hand was glimpsed in the contrivances of the creatures and in the wisdom and foresight evidenced by the laws of nature, which again promote his ends. These two conceptions between them represent the most predominant uses of the expression in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and hence the most relevant background for Smith’s uses of the expression.1
Just as the laws of nature were originally seen as “exemplif[ying] design, so too…did the laws of morality.” For Smith and his contemporaries, “the general laws of the moral, as well as of the material world, are wisely and beneficently ordered for the welfare of our species.”2
Seems to be working out alright.
1 thought on ““I, Pencil” and the Providential Invisible Hand”
I love “I, Pencil,” and one of the reasons is exactly what you pointed out:
I think that’s one of the most important realizations to understand about about capitalism.
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