It’s true. You Didn’t Build That.

July 29th, 2012

One of the lost teaching moments of the entire “You didn’t build that” meme is how that statement, by itself, is true. As explained in wonderful detail in Leonard Reed’s classic parable, “I, Pencil,” no one person can build anything in our modern economy. Imagine something as simple as a pencil. The graphite to write with, the wood casing, the latex for the eraser, the metal for the eraser-holder, the ink that is printed on the side of the pencil, etc. All of these are products drawn from across the globe, developed by countless people, all driven by invisible forces. Yet, miraculously, they all come together to form a simple pencil.

So it is true. No one person can say, “I built a pencil.” Simply put, you didn’t build that. We all did. Though, I think we may differ on who “we” are. The forces that permit the assembly of the pencil extend far beyond the public goods that governments provide (roads, schools, etc.). The forces that build a pencil are far greater than any one person can comprehend.

Here is a nice, modern take on “I, Pencil,” focusing on how a smart phone is built–“I, Smartphone.”

Steve Jobs, you may have led a courageous effort to develop the iPhone, but you didn’t built it.

Video H/T Zak Slayback

Update: Similar point in Reason.

Yet what journalist Elmer Davis once said of Roosevelt could be said as well of Obama: “You could not quarrel with a single one of his generalities.” Nobody denies that man is a social being who relies on others from the moment he is born. Indeed, when Obama said in Roanoke that “somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive,” he could have cited Milton Friedman or any one of a dozen other free-market economists as evidence.

Example: In Leonard Read’s famous essay “I, Pencil” – later popularized by Friedman – Read demonstrates the miracle of the free market’s invisible hand. Nobody, he explains, can make a pencil by himself. A pencil’s wood comes from cedar trees in California; can you make a saw or fell a tree? It is shipped by rail; can you run a railroad? It is dried in kilns; can you build a kiln? The graphite comes from mines in Ceylon; can you mine graphite? Each pencil is coated in lacquer; can you make lacquer? The brass ferrule – well, you get the point.