The massive impact of the coronavirus has led to more than half of U.S. states imposing lockdown restrictions on social contact and gathering. Many states have also ordered closure of all “nonessential businesses.” The problem of course, is what defines an “essential worker.”

The massive impact of the coronavirus has led to more than half of U.S. states imposing lockdown restrictions on social contact and gathering. Many states have also ordered closure of all “nonessential businesses.” Those that are deemed “essential” vary by state, and are exempt from closure in whole or in part. In Michigan, for example, Gov. Whitmer signed executive order 2020-21 on March 23, 2020, requiring all Michigan residents to stay in their home unless they are an essential worker, are getting necessities like food and gas, or taking care of a loved one.

The problem of course, is what defines an “essential worker.” The ambiguity has already become sort of a meme, on social media those who are still conducting business as usual can be seen poking fun at the fact by proclaiming their importance as an essential employee. But in reality, they ​really are​ essential employees. And if you have been laid off due to the crisis, don’t worry, you are essential too. The statement wasn’t made to boost your self esteem—but to point out a fact that can be easily understood with a better understanding of how the economy works.

This is not to argue whether shutdowns should occur or debate what precautions should or should not be taken due to the coronavirus threat. That is a much larger issue beyond the scope of this essay. I simply want to point out that there is no such thing as a “nonessential employee.” By applying the wisdom of the 1958 essay by Leonard Read, ​”I, Pencil,​” we will see just that.

“I, Pencil”

The classic essay details the power of the market. 1976 Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman said of it, “I know of no other piece of literature that so succinctly, persuasively, and effectively illustrates the meaning of both Adam Smith’s invisible hand—the possibility of cooperation without coercion—and Friedrich Hayek’s emphasis on the importance of dispersed knowledge and the role of the price system in communicating information that “will make the individuals do the desirable things without anyone having to tell them what to do.” Friedman went on to put it in his 1980 TV show ​Free to Choose.

“I, Pencil” t​ells the story of a pencil in first-person form. The pencil laments being taken for granted on a daily basis, and remarks that despite appearing so simple, there really is “not a single person on the face of this Earth knows how to make me.”

The pencil discusses the complex, but unseen process that goes into its creation. It starts by tracing its family tree, derived from cedar wood grown in Oregon and Northern California. The pencil describes all of the gear used in harvesting such large amounts of cedar—saws, axes, ropes, motors, chains—as well as the manpower needed to forge such tools to begin with—lumberjacks, mill workers, truck drivers, and cement pourers.

The pencil then describes the cedar logs that are cut into thin slats that are kiln-dried and waxed to achieve their yellow color. The mill sweepers, truck drivers, and gasmen who supply electricity. The pencil factories that cost upward of $4 million in machinery and building practices. And the complex process of carving eight grooves, laying graphite from Sri Lanka, and applying glue.

Next are the miners, toolmakers, paper-sack producers, and seemingly unrelated lighthouse keepers who ensure the delivery of shipments of raw materials and finished products. The graphite is mixed with Mississippi clay and ammonium hydroxide for refinement. The manufacturing process continues to be detailed through various components of the pencil’s physical makeup, including ferrule, factice, pumice, and six coats of lacquer.

The pencil notes that through this process, the absence of a mastermind at work, only the invisible hand guiding the process through human imagination. The pencil praises this ingenuity in miraculously taking these raw materials from nature and through all these steps, turning them into a pencil.

Applying This Lesson to the Current Crisis

An important lesson “​I, Pencil” ​teaches us is that there are so many unseen parts that go into the finished product of a pencil. Every person and material in this interconnected web, even though they may never see or come into contact with each other, has their part to play. Without any one piece of the puzzle, the finished product cannot come to existence.

This leads us to an important dilemma at the present—the essential vs. nonessential job distinction. With the number of coronavirus cases growing, no one in their right mind would argue that doctors, nurses, and other medical staff are not essential (to whom we owe a great deal of gratitude for putting yourself on the line for us). Similar to the story in ​”I, Pencil,​” however, the process by which medical care is provided is much more complex than meets the eye.

There are copious amounts of medical equipment needed to combat the virus, such as masks, gloves, tools, and medication. These products start out as raw materials which are harvested by laborers, then shipped by truckers to factories, where more employees then assemble them at said factories, products are then shipped again to warehouses where they are stored, until they are again shipped to hospitals, where they are stored until used by medical staff or patients.

As you can see, countless employees all across the country or even globe are needed in the production of medical equipment. Taken in isolation, one of these jobs might seem “nonessential,” but when looking at the entire economic picture there’s always more than meets the eye.

Even amid the pandemic, there are many human needs that are imperative for survival: food, water, clothing, and shelter to name a few. That becomes much larger when looking at necessities for basic comfort: electricity, heat, indoor plumbing, the list goes on. Pick any one of these items, and the same complex formula used to create the pencil can be applied.

Conclusion

The economy is such a vast, complex creature. There’s always more than meets the eye. The lesson learned from the timeless wisdom in ​”I, Pencil​” is definitely applicable today. I urge those that think a certain job or industry is “nonessential” to look at the bigger picture, and see how the economy is a vast, interconnected web. I for one, believe that in a crisis like this, being able to get medical care to those infected is as important as ever to heal the sick and minimize the spread of the virus. That’s why I know that there is no such thing as a nonessential job.

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Notes:

The full text of ​I, Pencil​ can be read at the following link: https://fee.org/resources/i-pencil/

The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

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