Only God Can Make a Tree - or a pencil
Page created: 30th March 2019, 9:41 pm
Anything That's PeacefulThe Case for the Free Market
Leonard E. Read
As I sat contemplating the miraculous make-up of an ordinary lead pencil, the thought flashed in mind: I'll bet there isn't a person on earth who knows how to make even so simple a thing as a pencil. If this could be demonstrated, it would dramatically portray the miracle of the market and would help to make clear that all manufactured things are but manifestations of creative energy exchanges; that these are, in fact, spiritual phenomena. The lessons in political economy this could teach! There followed that not-to-be forgotten day at the pencil factory, beginning at the receiving dock; covering every phase of countless transformations, and concluding in an interview with the chemist. Had you seen what I saw, you, also, might have struck up a warm friendship with that amazing character, I, PENCIL.l Being a writer in his own right, let I, PENCIL speak for himself:
I AM a lead pencil-the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to all boys and girls and adults who can read and write. Writing is both my vocation and my avocation; that's all I do. You may wonder why I should write this genealogy. Well, to begin with, my story is fascinating. I am a mystery-more so than a tree or a sunset or even a flash of lightning. But sad to say, I am, like all abundant things, taken for granted by those who use me, as if I were a mere incident and without background. This supercilious attitude relegates me to the level of the commonplace. This is a grievous error in which mankind cannot too long persist without peril. For, as a wise man observed, "We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders."
I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me-no, that's too much to ask of anyone-if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or a jet plane or a mechanical dishwasher because-well, because I am seemingly so simple.
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 more than one and one-half billion of my kind manufactured in the U.S.A. annually.
Pick me up and look me over. What do you see? Not much meets the eye-there's some wood, lacquer, the printed labeling, the lead, a bit of metal, and an eraser. Just as you cannot trace your family tree back very far, so is it impossible for me to name and explain all my antecedents. But I would like to suggest enough of them to impress upon you the richness and complexity of my background.
The Raw Material.
My family tree begins with what in fact is a tree, a cedar of straight grain that grows in Northern California and Oregon. Now contemplate all the saws and trucks and rope and the countless other gear used in harvesting and carting the cedar logs to the railroad siding. Think of all the persons and their numberless skills that went into the fabrication: the mining of ore, the making of steel and its refinement into saws, axes, motors; the growing of hemp and bringing it through all the stages to heavy and strong rope; the logging camps with their beds and mess halls, the cookery and the raising of all the foods. Why, untold thousands of persons had a hand in every cup of coffee the loggers drink!
The logs are shipped to a mill in San Leandro, California. Can you imagine the individuals who make flat cars and rails and railroad engines and who construct and install the communication systems incidental thereto? These legions are among my antecedents.
Consider the millwork in San Leandro. The cedar logs are cut into small, pencil-length slats less than one-fourth of an inch in thickness. These are kiln dried and then tinted for the same reason women put rouge on their faces. People prefer that I look pretty, not a pallid white. The slats are waxed and kiln dried again. How many skills went in to the making of the tint and the kilns, into supplying the heat, the light and power, the belts, motors, and all the other things a mill requires? Sweepers in the mill among my ancestors? Yes, and included are the men who poured the concrete for the dam of a Pacific Gas & Electric Compan}' hydroplant which supplies the mill's power.
Don't overlook the ancestors present and distant who have a hand in transporting sixty carloads of slats across the na- tion from California to Wilkes-Barre!
Once in the pencil factory-$4,000,000 in machinery and building, all capital accumulated by thrifty and saving parents of mine-each slat is given eight grooves by a complex machine. Then a second machine lays leads in every other slat, applies glue, and places another slat atop-a lead sandwich, so to speak. Seven brothers and I are mechanically carved from this "wood-clinched" sandwich.
My "lead" itself-it contains no lead at all-is complex. The graphite is mined in Ceylon. Consider these miners and those who make their many tools and the makers of the paper sacks in which the graphite is shipped and those who make the string that ties the sacks and those who put them aboard ships and those who make the ships. Even the lighthouse keepers along the way assisted in my birth-and the harbor pilots.
The graphite is mixed with clay from Mississippi, with ammonium hydroxide used in the refining process. Then wetting agents are added such as sulfonated tallow-animal fats chemically reacted with sulfuric acid. After passing through numerous machines, the mixture finally appears in endless extrusions-as from a sausage grinder-cut to size, dried, and baked for several hours at 1,850 degrees Fahrenheit. To increase their strength and smoothness the leads are than treated with a hot mixture which includes candelilla wax from Mexico, paraffin wax, and hydrogenated natural fats.
My cedar receives six coats of lacquer. Do you know all of the ingredients of lacquer? Who would think that the growers of castor beans and the refiners of castor oil are a part of it? They are! Why, even the processes by which the lacquer is made a beautiful yellow involve the skills of more persons than one can enumerate!
Observe the labeling. That's a film formed by applying heat to carbon black mixed with resins. How do you make resins and what, pray, is carbon black?
My bit of metal-the ferrule-is brass. Think of all the persons who mine zinc and copper and those who have the skills to make shiny sheet brass from these products of nature. Those black rings on my ferrule are black nickel. What is black nickel and how is it applied? The complete story of why the center of my ferrule has no black nickel on it would take pages to explain.
Then there's my crowning glory, inelegantly referred to in the trade as "the plug," the part man uses to erase the errors he makes with me. An ingredient called "factice" is what does the erasing. It is a rubber-like product made by reacting rape seed oil from Sweden with sulfur chloride. Rubber, contrary to the common notion, is only for binding purposes. Then, too, there are numerous vulcanizing and accelerating agents. The pumice comes from Italy; and the pigment which gives "the plug" its color is cadmium sulfide.
No One Knows It All
Does anyone wish to challenge my earlier assertion that no single person on the face of the earth knows how to make me?
Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom knows more than a very few of the others. Now, you may say that I go too far in relating the picker of a coffee berry in far off Brazil and food growers elsewhere to my creation; that this is an extreme position. I shall stand by my claim. There isn't a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how. From the standpoint of know-how, the only difference between the miner of graphite in Ceylon and the logger in Oregon is in the type of know-how. Neither the miner nor the logger can be dispensed with, any more than can the chemist at the factory or the worker in the oil field-paraffin being a by-product of petroleum.
Here is an astounding fact: Neither the worker in the oil field nor the chemist nor the digger of graphite or clay nor any who mans or makes the ships or trains or trucks nor the one who runs the machine that does the knurling on my hit of metal nor the president of the company performs his singular task because he wants me. Each one wants me less, perhaps, than does a child in the first grade. Indeed, there are some among this vast multitude who never saw a pencil nor would they know how to use one. Their motivation is other than me. Perhaps it is something like this: Each of these millions sees that he can thus exchange his tiny know-how for the goods and services he needs or wants. I may or may not be among these items.
There is a fact still more astounding: the absence of a master mind, of anyone dictating or forcibly directing these countless actions which bring me into being. No trace of such a person can be found. Instead, we find the Invisible Hand at work. This is the mystery to which I earlier referred.
"Only God Can Make a Tree"
A poet has said that "only God can make a tree." Why do we agree with this? Isn't it because we realize that we ourselves could not make one? Indeed, can we even describe a tree? We cannot, except in superficial terms. We can say, for instance, that a certain molecular configuration manifests itself as a tree. But what mind is there among men that could even record, let alone direct, the constant changes in molecular arrangements that transpire in the life span of a tree? Such a feat is utterly unthinkable!
I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies-millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human masterminding. Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.
The above is what I meant when writing, "If you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing." For, if one is aware that these know hows will naturally, yes, automatically arrange themselves into creative and productive patterns in response to human necessity and demand that is, in the absence of governmental or any other coercive masterminding then one will possess an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: a faith in free men. Freedom is impossible without this faith. Why? Without this faith there is nothing to believe in except controlled men. It's either a faith in free men and peace-or the lack of it and violence. There is no third alternative.
The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited, and thus make it possible for people to organize themselves in harmony with this lesson. Let society's legal apparatus remove all obstacles as best it can, that is, let it keep the peace. Merely permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith in what free men will accomplish. Not only will this faith be confirmed but it has been and is confirmed to us daily, in evidence so abundant that we seldom take notice of it. I, Pencil, seemingly simple though I am, offer the miracle of my creation as testimony that faith in free men is a practical faith, as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the good earth.
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