The “Conservative” Assault on I, Pencil

by Mitch Whitus

Spontaneous order is the bane of central planners – to authoritarians and advocates of big government, the idea that complexity and problem-solving can arise from decentralized actions is anathema.  How can thousands of people around the world, without any sort of central direction, create such miraculous inventions like computers, cars, or, even, a pencil?

Enter Leonard Read, whose I, Pencil essay offers an easily digestible gateway to the basic ideas of economic liberty.  Read compares the creation of a pencil to that of a tree; neither “the worker in the oil field nor the chemist nor the digger of graphite or clay” has a desire to create a pencil, the same way that individual organic molecules have no desire to produce a tree.  But each “of these millions sees that he can thus exchange his tiny know-how for the goods and services he needs or wants,” and this ultimately creates a complex object like a pencil without the need for a mastermind.

We often forget that our lives are predicated on self-interested productivity and mutual exchange.  Millions of people trading something of value for something of value creates the wonderful abundance that we see every day.  Without a central authority, coffee bean farmers, plastic cup manufacturers, and expresso machine operators produce just the right amount of coffee to get American workers through their workday, day after day.

Of course, the “supply chains” we hear so much about are not infallible: war cuts off supplies of vital natural resources, pandemics (or, as we have seen, government reactions to pandemics) close factories that refine those resources, and a single ship can block an integral canal that allows for prompt delivery of goods across the world.  In short, the world can be chaotic and unpredictable in the short term.

Central planners promise an end to this uncertainty.  With their infinite wisdom, guidance, and intelligence, they aim to direct people when, where, and how to produce goods and services.  Many modern “conservatives” find such central planning seductive – if people can simply be told what to do, and forced to do it, we could alleviate our supply chain problems.  If people would just “buy American,” and stop trading with other nations, we could once again be a self-sufficient and powerful country.

A 2021 article from The American Conservative eloquently argues the point.  During America’s Covid woes, “[we] certainly cannot provide for ourselves, because we have placed so much faith in the perfect function of a spontaneous arrangement of millions of individuals acting independently at a million different points across the globe.” Instead, Americans can “[accept], humbly, that subjection to forces we cannot control may not be a reasonable price for the creation of products we could not have made.”

Thus – for the small price of forgoing innovation, complex products, and specialization of labor (read: for the small price of giving up our freedom and standard of living)  America can end its reliance on scary foreigners!  The article advocates “regulations and incentives to build and buy in-country” to, presumably, no longer be subject to international supply chains.

It’s a sad state of affairs when “conservatives” turn so unashamedly to the power of government, and try to force their fellow Americans to live as instructed.  A paleolithic world in which every person grows her own food or knits his own clothes is apparently the only viable outcome to these “regulations and incentives.” 

Of course, this assault on the principles of liberty is no surprise.  America and the world have recently preferred the company of authoritarians to that of the free thinker or constitutional advocate.  People want to bring order to perceived chaos, and there is no shortage of individuals who promise quick fixes to our problems if we would cede them more control.

But there is another way.  Rather than rely on strongmen or force to reign in our fellow citizens, we can double-down on a system that actually works: the principles of liberty so wonderfully explained by Leonard Read.  Self-interest, mutual exchange, and alignment of incentives produce a wondrous bounty that no one person or collective of philosopher kings can organize or even conceive of how to create.

We must accept that there will always be some level of disorder.  Yes – there have recently been shortages of goods and services that raised prices and caused much frustration.  But legal edicts will not solve this issue, nor will the blowhards who advocate “buying American.”  Instead, over the long run, our standard of living and prosperity will continue to increase through the expansion of free trade.  Turning inward, raising tariffs, and imposing regulations on how citizens buy and sell only makes America poorer. 

Centralization and collectivization can be enticing for people of every political stripe.  We will all be best served if we reject the urge for authoritarianism and realize that “conservative” arguments for intrusive government are more of the same snake oil being peddled by the leftist statists.

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