‘I, Whiskey’: Free Markets And The Human Spirit

In a political season that's seen a lot of skepticism about big business and trade, it can be good to step back and remind ourselves of how the buying and selling we do every day fits into our vision of a just society. In that spirit, a new film from the Competitive Enterprise Institute takes a look at how commerce fosters valuable connections between us and our neighbors, and how the freedom of consumers and entrepreneurs lies at the heart of our friendships, relationships, and higher goals for ourselves.

"I, Whiskey: The Human Spirit" is a short-form documentary that gives viewers a look into the history and practice of the distilling business through interviews with historian Garrett Peck, master distiller Rick Wasmund, and bar owner Bill Thomas. Each of them contributes an important part of the story about how this popular product makes it from the field to the flask.

Along the way, new ideas are tested, businesses are built, money is made, and friendships are formed. And in the case of Wasmund, a humble whiskey maker meets his future wife.

We could uncover a similar web of stories connected to the development of lots of other products, of course. Each industry — from fashion design to manufacturing to software development — has its own complex and idiosyncratic way of evolving, and creates its own network of friendships and professional associations. Even the most familiar products can reveal surprisingly profound truths about the world around us. In fact, it is sometimes the most ordinary ones that can best capture our imagination.

"I, Whiskey" is actually the second film in a series. The first was "I, Pencil," which was based on an essay of the same title written by free-market advocate Leonard Read in 1958. Read was confronting the then still-prevalent arguments about central economic planning and "industrial policy" that had come out of World War II.

The redirection of economic resources and labor required by the war effort and the impressive results in the manufacturing sector had convinced even some skeptics of big government that state supervision of the economy was the wave of the future. Experts widely predicted that some global fusion of American capitalism and Soviet control would evolve out of the Cold War.

In an effort to demolish some of the myths propping up this unfortunate theory, Read wrote an essay purporting to give voice to the observations of a humble pencil — hence the story's first-person title. The essay's wooden and graphite protagonist describes the complexity of what, even in the 1950s, was a highly interdependent global economy, making two important points.

First, even a simple product is the result of the uncoordinated efforts of a huge number of people; and second, no single individual has the knowledge or ability to plan that complex process of production. It's only when individual actors are left free to respond to supply and demand that the spontaneous order of a prosperous market economy can emerge.

The film version of "I, Pencil" translated those lessons for a 21st-century audience and now "I, Whiskey" approaches these themes with a similar faith in economic freedom. The new film, however, makes the message more personal with a focus on the real-life whiskey makers (and drinkers) for whom this everyday product has become something very special.

We can accomplish amazing things when we're free to create and innovate. "I, Whiskey" highlights those opportunities and celebrates human ingenuity.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute is known more for analyzing regulatory policy than producing films. Our scholars and attorneys are most often to be found challenging the dictates of Washington's alphabet soup of agencies: EPA, FDA, FCC and SEC, to name a few.

But this project is also important, and its message is much needed today — both in this country and around the world. Capitalism and civil society don't have to be at odds. In fact, they're inextricably linked. Many of our best-loved community institutions owe their origins to relationships and leadership that came out of the business world. And the act of buying and selling, or cooperating and competing, itself builds bridges between individuals and communities, often without us even realizing it.

That is definitely something worth raising a glass to.

Originally posted to Investor's Business Daily