Nobody knows how to make a pencil, or a health-care system
In his classic short story “I, Pencil,” economist Leonard Read considers the incomprehensible complexity involved in the production of a simple No. 2 pencil: the expertise in design, forestry, mining, metallurgy, engineering, transportation, support services, logistics, architecture, chemistry, machining, and other fields of knowledge necessary to create a product so common, so humble, and so cheap as to have become both ubiquitous and disposable. Read’s conclusion, which is one of those fascinating truths so obvious that nobody appreciates them, is that nobody knows how to make a pencil. Nobody is in charge of the operation, and nobody understands it end to end. From the assembly-line worker to the president of the pencil company, thousands or millions of people have tiny, discrete pieces of knowledge about the process, but no coordinating authority organizes their efforts.
That is the paradox of social knowledge: Of course we know how to make a pencil, even though none of us knows how to make a pencil, and pencils get made with very little drama and no central authority, corporate or political, overseeing their creation. A mobile phone is a much more complicated thing than a No. 2 pencil, but both are the products of spontaneous order — of systems that are, in the words of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Adam Ferguson, the “products of human action, but not of human design.”…
Which is something to keep in mind the next time somebody promises to “solve” our health-care challenges or unemployment. Washington is packed to the gills with people who believe that they have the ability to design an intelligent national health-care system, but there is not one who does — no Democrat, no Republican, no independent. The information burden is just too vast. Washington is not only full of people who do not know what they are talking about, it is full of people who do not know that they do not know what they are talking about. That is no model for social change. Your pencil and your phone are.