Setting the Record Straight on Liberty

Alexander had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. And that was before he asked Papa where he was going with that axe. So, he decided to go to Australia, following Harold’s purple crayon path, past Madeline’s vine-covered Parisian house, and around that hole in the ground where there lived a Hobbit.

Familiar phrases? That means you internalize a good story – and you’re probably now mournfully recalling poor Charlotte’s demise. I was reminded of the value of good storytelling last week, at the Reason Foundation’s video awards, where CEI’s animated short film, I, Pencil, won first place.

Passing Lane Films’ Drew Tidwell, Helen Straight and Nick Tucker, and CEI’s Nicole Yeatman deserve great credit for creating the visual beauty of that video short. But actually it all goes back to Leonard Read, who in 1958 penned this extraordinary original tribute to the wonder and promise of the free market – and which we liberty lovers treasure with the same reverence as those unforgettable books from childhood.

I, Pencil is the “biography” of a simple wooden pencil, but it is more than that. It is a guide to the great global symphony of human labor and ingenuity that goes into a single pencil’s production. In his short essay, Read successfully lifts the curtain to reveal not a wizard but the intricate mechanics of the modern world – how self-interest compels men and women to cooperate peacefully across cultural and geographic boundaries.

A common criticism of free enterprise is that it enshrines the “law of the jungle,” spurring competition at the expense of human cooperation, elevating material success as the paramount social value. The truth is the opposite, of course. The “dog-eat-dog” ethos of the jungle relies on coercion and theft, leading to ruined lives and wasted property.

Market cooperation, spontaneous and undirected, disperses material prosperity far and wide. But it is only a means to an end. The power and wonder of the free market is that it relies not only on people’s ability to solve problems and find happiness, but in their freedom to do so, and the resulting mutual trust that allows society to flourish – or, as Read put it, “Anything That’s Peaceful.”

In I, Pencil, Read quotes the great G.K. Chesterton: “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.” Today, there are undeniably some wonders out there. Consider for example:

  • The process of electrospinning that will help human bodies heal by weaving nano-scale fibers together;
  • Bluetooth technology that has helped numerous amputees by enabling prosthetic limbs to respond to movements in other limbs and react accordingly;
  • New, effective HIV treatments, such as the new pill Stribild, which combines four HIV treatments into one dosage, offering more support and prevention than ever in the fight against AIDS;
  • Technologies such as bio-printing and genetics to better manage age-related disorders such as heart disease and cancer.

These innovations and more are pushing us every day into a better future – as long as the heavy hand of government, however well-meaning, doesn’t get in the way.

Which brings me to what my friend Russ Roberts, the George Mason University economics professor and widely read blogger, said. He’s such a wonderful storyteller that he put it most eloquently in – of all settings – his Congressional testimony on the 2008 financial crisis:

“[W]we need to stop trying to imagine we can design housing markets and mortgage markets and financial markets and compensation. I want my country back. I want a country where responsibility still means something. Where rich and poor, Main Street and Wall Street live by the same rules.  We don’t need a Special Master to level the playing field. We just need to take the crony out of crony capitalism so we can get back to the real thing.”

By the same token, I want our narrative back – the one that aspires to a future of longer lives and cleaner air instead of major disease, a future where we can choose precious time with loved ones instead of holding down two jobs to pay the taxes to fund a paternalistic kleptocracy.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of I, Pencil is its simple-yet-powerful ability to convey why central planning is nothing more than an exercise in futility and arrogance – what F.A. Hayek called “the pretense of knowledge.” And the moment one tosses aside humility and assumes to know the unknowable, there’s not much to hold back the state from imposing its will on peaceful individuals – for their own good, of course.

That is an ending we decidedly do not want for our story.