I, Pencil: The Movie

by Jason Stotts

One of the things that I think people often fail to understand about markets is that literally every good is affected by every other.  A change in the price of oil will change the price of wool.  A regulation about coffee in Brazil will change the price of cars in America.  Everything that affects a market at all will be felt in the price of every good or service in the market.  Perhaps the effect will be larger or smaller, but if you do anything in a market, rest assured you are having an impact.  I think this short movie does a good job of illustrating this fact in a very benevolent way and I encourage everyone to take a look at it.

Capitalism is the only system of individual rights ever conceived; it is the only moral system of human interaction.

2 Responses to “I, Pencil: The Movie”

  1. Steve Vogel

    This is quite wonderful — up until the end. It shows (does it mean to?) why Obama’s notorious “you didn’t build that” was quite correct. My question is: does our failure to recognize the astonishing character of the world that surrounds us, noted at the beginning here — a world of things that have been MADE by the amazingly extensive and complex co-operative activity of so many human beings — have anything to do with an economic system where each person acts entirely independently and for his or her own private gain: so that the overall effect (the pencil, and all that it makes possible) appears to each one of us as something external to and independent of us, as something that exists *by itself* and not as something that we all acted co-operatively to produce? Marx called that phenomenon “alienation.” Wouldn’t it be better if we EXPLICITLY and CONSCIOUSLY acted co-operatively with each other, and KNEW ourselves to be bound together in the creation of a common world?

  2. JasonStotts


    Although we differ about the reasons why, I agree that it would be better if people understood the nature of markets and how interconnected all of our actions are. I think it would create a greater sense of community and benevolence if people knew that their lives were being improved by others all over the world. I also think it would increase our sense of wonder and awe to consider how complex the markets are to bring everything together.

    Of course, though, we do disagree about this at a deeper level. I think that the phrase “You didn’t build that” is abominable. Cooperation is between individuals, not amorphous groups, and to say that any particular individual didn’t build the pencil is right, but each one made a valuable contribution and without each individual, the process could not have been completed. Part of this is a failure to understand the idea of “intermediary goods,” goods which are created to be consumed in the process of making some other good. These are, nevertheless, valuable and important, and without them the ultimate goods cannot be created.

    We also disagree about Marx’s idea of alienation. Alienation only makes sense for the physical laborer, and then only some kinds of labor. How does the philosopher look at his work? The poet? The lawmaker? The policeman? Is the woodsman who chops down trees, but doesn’t fashion the wood into houses, alienated? I think the entire concept is mistaken. Alienation is nothing more than specialization and a failure to recognize the value that your particular speciality has. Imagine how little philosophy you’d be able to do if you also had to butcher your cows and weave your wool and chop your firewood, etc. Specialization is what allows civilization to exist. If some people feel “alienated” by not being able to see the end result of their labor, then they should either be more imaginative in picturing this or change careers such that they work in a finishing stage of production or in a career where they can do the entire process themselves. And they have this freedom if they have free markets: because that’s what a free market is, the freedom of individuals to choose their owns paths and make their own ways.

    You ask: “Wouldn’t it be better if we EXPLICITLY and CONSCIOUSLY acted co-operatively with each other, and KNEW ourselves to be bound together in the creation of a common world?” And I say: Yes, it is. But for the reasons I elaborate above.