This short film is the first in a series produced by the Competitive Enterprise Institute to explore the principles of free-market capitalism. The film, however, achieves much more, explaining how the network of communication and exchange (i.e. relationships) gives rise to something as deceptively simple as a pencil. The network that is built up through looking at the supply chain of a pencil in terms of both raw materials and human interaction creates a web of relationships that stretches all around the world, and without which, we would not have a pencil to hold. This reminds me of the Toaster Project by Thomas Thwaites, where he attempted (and vaguely succeeded) in building a toaster from scratch. These examples show how the complex system that we generally call civilisation has very concrete and tangible emergent properties that are near-impossible to achieve as a human in isolation.
This mental exercise is a great one to bring into the classroom: just give your students an everyday object and have them map out the chain of relationships that brought that object into their hands. There are many ways to start mapping this nebulous net, and whether you begin with the raw materials or the finished product you can tell a different story of production each and every time.
But to return to the I, Pencil project: there is another interesting message that comes across from the video. The video was created partly as a way of explaining the benefits of free-market capitalism, something that is closely associated with competition. Yet the story of the production of the pencil is one of cooperation and mutually beneficial relationships- the competition just ensures that the system stays in a state of flux. The conclusion one draws from this is that competition has a limited role- mainly to allow chaos and opportunity into the system- but the focus is on communication and cooperation.
This is not a story that we often hear from those either for or against capitalism, and yet it is one that needs to be told if we are to improve upon our current system. By giving free rein to competition, capitalism has done for economics what universal suffrage has done for democracy*- it has opened us up as a society to infinitely new possibilities at the expense of a growing section of people (in both cases the economically disadvantaged), allowing the wider majority to be steered by a minority in power. Most (I think) would agree that both systems of economics and politics are deeply flawed, but that they are still the best on offer. The challenge is thus to continue to improve upon what we have already created and learnt from. In this case, it might just be by refocusing our attention on the cooperation that is necessary to create an efficient system, rather than the competition that is necessary to keep it functioning.
*Just to explain this point a little further: Universal suffrage has opened up the process of government to those who previously had no voice in political process. Whilst this at first meant a wider participation in politics, in effect this participation comes in the form of specialist lobbyist groups, who in reality often hold disproportionate levels of power and influence depending upon the wealth of the population they claim to be speaking for. Universal suffrage has undoubtably been a good thing, but the problems that it has created have yet to be resolved, and as such, our democracies have become highly counterfeit.