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From “I, Pencil” to iPhone: The spontaneous order of capitalism

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By Michelle Malkin  •  October 5, 2011 11:50 PM

There is perhaps no greater image of irony tonight than that of anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, anti-materialist extremists of the Occupy Wall Street movement paying tribute to Steve Jobs — the co-founder, chairman and former chief executive of Apple Inc., who passed away this evening.

While the Kamp Alinsky Kids ditch school to moan about their massive student debt, parade around in zombie costumes, and whine about evil corporations while Tweeting, Facebook-ing, blogging, and Skype-ing their “revolution,” it’s the doers and producers and wealth creators like Jobs who change the world. They are the gifted 1 percent whom the #OWS “99 percent-ers” mob seeks to demonize, marginalize, and tax out of existence.

Inherent in the American success story of the iPhone/iMac/iPad is a powerful lesson about the fundamentals of capitalism. The Kamp Alinsky Kids scream “People over profit.” They call for “caring” over “corporations.”

But the pursuit of profits empowers people beyond the bounds of imagination.

I am blogging on an iMac. When I travel, I use my MacBook Pro. I Tweet news links from my iPhone. My kids are learning Photoshop and GarageBand on our Macs. I use metronome, dictation, video, and camera apps. I use Apple products for business, pleasure, social networking, raising awareness of the missing, finding recipes, and even tuning a ukulele.

None of the people involved in conceiving these products and bringing them to market “care” about me. They pursued their own self-interests. Through the spontaneous order of capitalism, they enriched themselves — and the world.

Eleven years ago, I wrote about one of my favorite economics essays: Leonard Read’s “I, Pencil.” He turned a mundane writing instrument into an elementary lesson about free-market capitalism. What goes for the pencil goes for any of the products Steve Jobs introduced to the world.

“I have a profound lesson to teach,” Read wrote in the voice of a lead pencil. “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. Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.”

Read traces the rich, deep genealogy of the metaphorical little pencil from the loggers who harvest its cedar wood grown in Oregon, to the millworkers in San Leandro, California, who cut the wood into thin slats, to the railroad employees who transport the wood across the country, to the graphite miners in Ceylon and refinery workers in Mississippi, to the farmers in the Dutch East Indies who produce an oil used to make erasers.

All these people, and many more at the periphery of the process, have special knowledge about their life’s work in their separate corners of the earth. But none by himself has the singular knowledge or ability to give birth to a pencil. Few will ever come in contact with the others who make the production of that pencil possible. It’s not because they “care about each other” that they cooperate to deliver any one good. It’s the result of self-interest, multiplied millions of times over.

As Read explains it: “Neither the worker in the oil field nor the chemist nor the digger of graphite or clay nor any who mans or makes the ships or trains or trucks nor the one who runs the machine that does the knurling on my bit of metal nor the president of the company performs his singular task because he wants me.” Indeed, there are some among this vast multitude who never saw a pencil nor would they know how to use one. Their motivation is other than me. Perhaps it is something like this: Each of these millions sees that he can thus exchange his tiny know-how for the goods and services he needs or wants.”

Read pushed the lesson of pencil further. “There is a fact still more astounding: The absence of a master mind, of anyone dictating or forcibly directing these countless actions which bring me into being. No trace of such a person can be found. Instead, we find the Invisible Hand at work.”

This spontaneous “configuration of human energies” is repeated endlessly in our daily lives. Think of the countless and diverse people involved in producing a Slinky, jump rope, or baseball, a diaper, refrigerator, desktop computer, Boeing 747, or iPhone.

Appreciating this voluntary configuration of human energies, Read argued, is key to possessing “an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: a faith in free people. Freedom is impossible without this faith.”

Indeed. Without that faith, we are susceptible to the force of class-warfare mobs and the arrogance of master planners in Washington who believe the role of private American entrepreneurs, producers, and wealth generators is to “grow the economy” and who “think at some point you have made enough money.”

The progressives who want to bring down “Wall Street” will snipe that Steve Jobs was one of “theirs,” not “ours.”

He belonged to no one. He was transcendently committed to excellence and beauty and innovation. And yes, he made gobs of money pursuing it all while benefiting hundreds of millions of people around the world whom he never met, but who shed a deep river of tears upon learning of his death tonight.

Such is the everlasting miracle of the spontaneous configuration of human energies. Teach your children well.

***

Via ZoeyalaMode, a very related and relevant September 2011 reflection from Mises.org:

What made Jobs’s tenure at Apple great is that he wedded profits with aesthetic loveliness. Not every businessperson can or should do this. Even the entrepreneurs who provided the masses with tacky things are just as deserving of our admiration and praise, for they too do their part to lift us all out of the poverty and squalor that is the state of nature.

And aside from the prettiness of certain products or the elegance of the smartphone, there is another overarching beauty that we find in the market: a lovely, orderly, productive global matrix of cooperative exchange that leads to human flourishing for everyone, even in the absence of a global dictator. This is as beautiful a system as any product Steve Jobs ever made.

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