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Update: See Joe Carter’s helpful reflections on this.

In 1958 Leonard Read wrote, “I, Pencil,” to illustrate the wonder of the free market—namely, that one person alone could not create the pencils we have, but a thousand people labor and cooperate together to produce a pencil that we can purchase for a a trifling sum.

The video below tells the story well. For those who have eyes to see, it’s also an amazing testimony, I think, to divine providence and as our work as image bearers in reflecting his creativity (even if unwittingly) and having appropriate dominion over creation.

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16 thoughts on “It Takes a Thousand People to Create a Pencil”

  1. Ken says:

    Can’t help but thinking that if President Obama got up and said “You didn’t make that pencil” he would be called a socialist and enemy of the free market. Just saying.

    1. Jackie says:

      I think comparing this to Obama’s comment about “you didn’t build that” is to misunderstand both points. The President’s remark placed an individual’s success in a dependent relationship to the government, looking to it as the enabler, if not benefactor, of creativity and enterprise. The pencil illustration is not anti-government but it insists that both individual freedom and a free market are necessary for people to thrive in their creative efforts. It assumes that a government cannot and should not fuel or regulate commerce because it is run be people who will eventually (if not immediately) be selfish and corrupt. Capitalism assumes that people will be selfish. Being so they are motivated by their needs, desire to prosper, greed etc. and will therefore exchange their services for money. Capitalism is certainly not perfect but it’s the only system that takes total depravity seriously. It also makes room for the image of God in man to be manifest and allows some human attempts at goodness to flourish as well.

  2. Mark S says:

    This is as much of a utopian fantasy as communism. Unregulated markets do not create freedom and prosperity for anyone except the most wealthy. Smart regulation, investment in education and job training, and social safety nets are essential to create a marketplace that offers fairness and opportunity for all participants in the economy. But that goes against libertarian/Randian orthodoxy that dominates the right’s economic thinking. We need wake up and realize this is social Darwinism, not a Christian worldview.

    1. Ray says:

      ” Unregulated markets do not create freedom and prosperity for anyone except the most wealthy.”

      How do you know this?

      1. Mark says:


        1. Ray says:

          OK, thanks.

    2. CG says:

      Pretty sure the creators of this video would agree on the need for smart regulation.

      That being said, your assumption about what benefits “the most wealthy” could also be said to derive from European post-enlightenment thinking, not a Christian worldview. So let’s give people a little bit of the benefit of the doubt, okay?

      1. Mark S says:

        Do you disagree that an economic system which by its very nature creates huge disparities in wealth is antithetical to a Christian worldview? Friedman, Rand, and other market worshipers. Their golden rule is do unto myself what is best for me, not “do unto others as you would want them to do unto you.”

        1. CG says:

          You’re beginning from not one, but two bad premises. Your argument is:

          1) _____ economic system creates huge disparities in wealth.
          2) Christianity is about reducing disparities in wealth.
          ∴ Therefore, _____ economic system is antithetical to a Christian worldview.

          The first one is your opinion at best and the second is outright false, which means the conclusion is false as well.

          Where is “wealth disparity” itself in Scripture ever argued to be sinful? In the parable of the talents, what are we to make of the fact that one man received five and another received only one? Is this an example of grave injustice on the part of the Master, or is the Master more concerned with what is *done* with the resources rather than whether or not those resources have been equally allocated?

          Whether one is rich or poor, if they are putting their hope and finding their comfort in the pursuit of material possessions, they are engaging in mammon worship.

          We should certainly strive to care for those who are in desperate grinding poverty, but mere wealth disparity in and of itself is not a bad thing. The issue is what one does with whatever they have been given, great or little. Are they using what they have to glorify God?

  3. Loren Eaton says:

    I never thought I’d say this after watching a video about a pencil, but, man, that was absolutely beautiful.

  4. John says:

    What caught my attention was, “what man can do is unlimited”. Isn’t that the attitude that resulted in the tower of Babel?

    1. CG says:

      It is indeed. The creators of this video, as far as I’m aware are mostly humanists.

      That doesn’t mean they can’t bring true things to our attention. But we should always sift it against the authority of Scripture.

  5. rc sproul jr says:

    Not that it changes the point, but the argument comes from Leonard Reed, in I Pencil. Friedman wrote the afterword. More on point, wondering where wealth disparity is upheld as an evil in the Bible. Wondering if those object would rather have the poorest of us live like millionaires and the few rich live like trillionaires, or of they’d rather the richest earn $11,000 and the poorest $10,000.

  6. Loren Eaton says:

    Methinks this is applicable to the conversation.

  7. rc sproul jr says:

    Thank you Loren. What an encouragement to know that my question is in line with prior wisdom from the Iron Lady.

  8. Rick Segal's says:

    “I, Pencil” is more properly attributed to its author, Leonard Read.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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