The story of “I, Pencil” is rightfully regarded as one of the most important economic essays of the 20th century. Known for both its brevity and simplicity, “I, Pencil” conveys the truth about the correlation between free people and economic freedom.
The brilliance of “I, Pencil” is that the lesson is told from the most unexpected perspective — that of the lowly pencil. Yet the very humbleness of the pencil is perfectly juxtaposed by the complexity through which the pencil itself comes into being.
Told through the eyes of the pencil, the pencil delightfully describes human ingenuity, cooperation, and connectedness — all necessary parts to bring the pencil to fruition. The pencil explains that it is a people free and unfettered, who have each learned and exchanged a skill, that ultimately will create a good — be it a pencil like him, or otherwise.
Ultimately, using the perspective of the pencil is a metaphor for Read’s salient point: for us all to look introspectively and understand ourselves, our potential, and the world in which we live and can contribute. That it is ultimately people, not some government, who can organize, work, and create a thing of beauty and of necessity.
In that regard, the recent movie adaptation of “I, Pencil”, produced by Competitive Enterprise Institute, fell short of its potential. To be sure, the film most certainly has beautiful and simple graphics to convey the story and show the complexity of markets. However, the message itself is narrated from an outside perspective explaining the process of creative industry using a pencil as an example, which is not how “I, Pencil” is written.
By choosing to retell “I, Pencil”, with a replacement narrator looking in instead of the pencil looking out, the film loses the charm of the story and the central message about individuals, their potential, and freedom to create. The story needs that foundation in order to powerfully and properly explain that people, not government, are the true source of economic freedom.
Though the film is good, it is not great, and misses a wonderful opportunity to really bring to life the message of “I Pencil”, and convey its truths about individual freedom and free markets. Start with the essay and then watch the movie — and be uplifted about the ingenuity of free people.