I, Pencil: My Family Tree as told to Leonard E. Read. This short story very succinctly describes what Read calls the "miracle of ...millions of tiny know-hows" that go into producing something as simple as a pencil. It has become a classic amongst proponents of free markets. The actual article can be read here.
What is this miraculous process? There is the harvesting of the cedar wood used to make the body of the pencil and all of the tools, transportation, housing and food for workers, etc. that are required for this seemingly simple task. The graphite that is mined in Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka), mixed with clay from Mississippi, acid, tallow and other ingredients to make the "lead" of the pencil, with all of the background tools processes, and requirements. Not to mention the rubber for the eraser, the metal for the ferrule, and the lacquer to paint the wood.
All-in-all, millions of people, all with their own skills and knowledge, their know-hows, are involved in the production of something as mundane as a pencil.
"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 an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because—well, because I am seemingly so simple."
How can a pencil represent such an important concept as to be important to our very liberty? It is in understanding the concept that the process of making something so simple takes so many millions of voluntary interactions between people spread across the world. That all of these processes could never be planned, let alone controlled by one person, group or even government...and this one of the simplest of items. How then can the central planners of government think they can control whole industries? Economies? The climate? They cannot.
"Once government has had a monopoly of a creative activity such, for instance, as the delivery of the mails, most individuals will believe that the mails could not be efficiently delivered by men acting freely. And here is the reason: Each one acknowledges that he himself doesn't know how to do all the things incident to mail delivery. He also recognizes that no other individual could do it. These assumptions are correct. No individual possesses enough know-how to perform a nation's mail delivery any more than any individual possesses enough know-how to make a pencil. Now, in the absence of faith in free people—in the unawareness that millions of tiny know-hows would naturally and miraculously form and cooperate to satisfy this necessity—the individual cannot help but reach the erroneous conclusion that mail can be delivered only by governmental 'master-minding.'"
But, since 1958, it has been more than proven that the government is grossly inept at delivering the mail. Companies like FedEx, UPS and others have proven that private firms can bring innovation and efficiencies to the process and allows them to turn a tidy profit. The US Postal Service would have been defunct years ago if it weren't subsidized by taxpayers. And this is just one of thousands of areas where government is completely inept. Yet we continue to believe that they know best. We continue to allow them to control us. And this, more than anything else, threatens our liberty.
The video below is a great six minute coverage of all of the concepts from the article...with great graphics in living color. Enjoy.