Leonard Read: The Spiritual Economist

To this day, the most influential of FEE’s publications may be Leonard Read’s “I, Pencil.” It is widely used in introductory courses in economics and social philosophy. It offers a striking way to introduce students to a market-based perspective. And yet, its origins in the mind of Leonard Read were a mystery to almost everyone — until now.

For a refresher, here’s a sliver of the classic text:

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 the numberless skills that went into their 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 story brings out how, in a market economy, we are able to make use of socially scattered knowledge. Literally no one knows how to make as apparently simple an object as a pencil.

The story brings out how, in a market economy, we are able to make use of socially scattered knowledge. 

Read sets out ideas that — once one is aware of them — seem straightforward and illuminating. The result is that it is all too easy to take his approach for granted. But no one else had put things quite that way before.

So, just how did Leonard Read come to write his essay? And what lies behind it?

Contemplating Ordinary Objects

In Read’s journal entry for August 29, 1958, he wrote, “Decided to try ghost writing an aut…