All Commentary
Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Importance of Failure

In today’s society failure has become something to fear, avoid, and therefore prevent at all costs. Whether it is unemployment compensation, farm subsidies, or bailouts for failing companies, the world seems to view failure as having no redeeming social value. If success is all good and failure is all bad, then it seems as though we should do everything we can to remedy or prevent failure.

But is that so? Without denying the value of perseverance, and recognizing that the slogan “never give up” can be useful in overcoming certain obstacles, we must keep in mind that failure can act as a guide to more worthwhile activities. For example, in 1921 Walt Disney started a company called the Laugh-O-Gram Corporation, which went bankrupt two years later. If a friend of Disney or the government hadn’t let him fail and move on, he might never have become the Walt Disney we know today.

More important than this individual learning process is the irreplaceable role failure plays in the social learning process of the competitive market. When we refuse to allow failure to happen, or we cushion its blow, we ultimately harm not only the person who failed but also all of society by denying ourselves a key way to learn how best to allocate resources. Without failure there’s no economic growth or improved human well-being.

Economists, especially those of the Austrian school, often emphasize how entrepreneurs discover new knowledge and better ways of producing things. But entrepreneurial endeavors frequently fail and the profits thought to be in hand often don’t materialize. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, over half of small businesses fail within the first five years. But failed entrepreneurial activity is just as important as successful entrepreneurial activity. Markets are desirable not because they lead smoothly to improved knowledge and better coordination, but because they provide a process for learning from our mistakes and the incentive to correct them. It’s not that entrepreneurs are just good at getting it right; it’s also that they (like all of us) can know when they’ve got it wrong and can obtain the information necessary to get it right next time.

On this view failure drives change. While success is the engine that accelerates us toward our goals, it is failure that steers us toward the most valuable goals possible. Once failure is recognized as being just as important as success in the market process, it should be clear that the goal of a society should be to create an environment that not only allows people to succeed freely but to fail freely as well.

The Knowledge Problem

Understanding this point requires a broader vision of the market process. For Austrian economists the fundamental economic problem is not the efficient allocation of given resources to our most valued ends at a given time, but rather how we overcome the “knowledge problem”—the division of knowledge that characterizes the social world. It is more important to figure this out than to master the problem of resource allocation because new knowledge drives economic growth and creates prosperity. If the main task of the market were merely to allocate known resources to their most efficient uses, economic growth would seem impossible, since we would be stuck in a primitive world. Where is there any room for the innovation or change that drives progress and improves our lives? If a plow is deemed the most efficient use of iron and all iron is constantly allocated to making plows, how could iron ever be allocated for a new invention such as a tractor? The answer is that entrepreneurs change the most efficient use of resources by discovering new uses. By understanding the economic problem posed by limited, unique, and dispersed knowledge, we can better understand the role failure plays in coping with this problem.

Competition figures prominently in this system. Competition promotes entrepreneurial activity and the discovery of knowledge by empowering a variety of decision-makers to try to find new and better ways of using resources as well as new ends to achieve. This decentralization ensures that what F. A. Hayek called the local knowledge of time and place will be best used. Centralized planning, like other forms of government allocation, necessarily relies on the knowledge of fewer people, limiting discovery and restricting knowledge-dissemination to fewer channels. Competition is a better way to overcome the knowledge problem.

Failure and Opportunity

We can understand the role of failure if we recognize, as Ludwig von Mises did, that all human action intends to “remove felt uneasiness.” We are always striving to improve ourselves by achieving our highest valued ends as often as we can. On these terms, failure is all around us because no human ever achieves a complete lack of felt uneasiness. We always have unsatisfied ends. Israel Kirzner uses the term “alertness” to describe how the entrepreneurial element of human action identifies which ends to strive for and which means are available. Kirzner says that for market action to occur, entrepreneurs must first be alert to opportunities for profit. The possibility of profit keeps entrepreneurs alert to the ways people strive for ends or make use of means that fail to remove felt uneasiness. Once they’ve noticed this failure in human knowledge, the same opportunity for profit spurs entrepreneurial activity to find a new way to achieve those ends, or to find better ends themselves. So a failure in human knowledge becomes the catalyst for producing new knowledge via the entrepreneurial process.

When entrepreneurs attempt to correct a particular failure in knowledge, they often fail themselves and incur losses because of competition. Although bankruptcy is painful in the short term, such failure is an integral part of how entrepreneurial activity and the market function. Failure in a competitive society informs market participants about which activities or jobs to strive for and which to avoid, lest they waste time and money. Jobs that add value to society should be pursued, while those that fail to add value should be eliminated. Markets help guide market participants far better than any bureaucracy can because bureaucracies lack the market’s key components of competition, profit, and loss, which reveal failures and allow for their correction.

Because competition is a voyage into the unknown, we can only know after the fact what works and what does not. Thus economic failure is not “waste.” Calling entrepreneurial failure a “waste” implicitly assumes that one knew ahead of time what the best use of resources was. Such knowledge is not available to anyone, which is why failure is necessary to provide the needed signals.

The subsidies, bailouts, stimulus packages, and other interventions that now increasingly characterize the U.S. economy disrupt this process. Farm subsidies (including cheap water out west), for example, prevent entrepreneurs from finding and capitalizing on failures of knowledge in farming. While there may be new and better ways to grow food, it is difficult for entrepreneurs to find this out if farmers are kept afloat by the government. Perhaps decentralized, local farming would be discovered as more profitable if larger monoculture farms that are possibly damaging the environment were allowed to fail. By preventing inefficient methods of production from suffering losses, subsidies reduce the degree of failure in agricultural markets and make it harder to know that misallocation has taken place and to correct it.

Not letting Chrysler and General Motors fail during the Great Recession prevented an entrepreneurial response to this misuse of resources. The bailouts created two types of negative incentives. First, the companies were encouraged to keep making cars when their losses showed the resources and labor could better be used elsewhere. Second, the government deterred any new entrepreneur from entering the industry and doing things better. Many politicians defended the bailout because they did not want the hundreds of thousands of autoworkers to become unemployed. But when hundreds of thousands of workers become unemployed they do not disappear. They find different jobs that would contribute to society in a better way than working for a bankrupt auto company. The physical assets of bankrupt companies also get reallocated to alert entrepreneurs looking for bargains. Failure is necessary for learning and for success.

The Keynesian argument for government jobs programs is that any sort of work will restart spending in a recession, even hiring people to dig ditches and fill them up. But do a higher GDP and a job by themselves make society better off? Would it be better to have a 2 percent unemployment rate with 8 percent of the employed population doing jobs that don’t add real value (so around 10 percent of the labor force is not adding real value) or more unemployment with everyone who is working really adding value?


Unemployment is a form of failure, and it involves the same considerations as when businesses fail. If a job no longer contributes value this needs to be made clear so that those workers can find jobs that actually do. Imagine if the disemployment of farmers had been prevented during the transition to an industrial economy. In 1941, 41 percent of the U.S. workforce was in agriculture. In 2011 the portion was 3 percent. Where would industry be today if we had prevented the majority of the 41 percent from losing their jobs and finding new ones? It is right that this sort of “failure” was allowed to occur because the displaced farmers found new jobs in the cities and elsewhere. Those new jobs helped society transition from agriculture to industry to services, creating even newer jobs all along the way. This is strong evidence that learning from failure takes place in labor markets.

Autopoiesis (life’s continuous production of itself) is one of the principal characteristics of life, and constant change is its essence. This applies to the economy as well. For us to maintain or increase a high standard of living we must constantly change how we do things. This change won’t be fueled by lucky guesses or by bureaucratic decrees, but instead often by entrepreneurial activity in the face of failure in the market. Since that activity drives the train of progress, it is in society’s interest that the tracks be cleared of governmental obstacles.