Front Page Titles (by Subject) 4: Trial and Error - Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 3 (LF ed.)
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4: Trial and Error - Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 3 (LF ed.) 
Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, in 4 vols., ed. Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). Vol. 3.
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Trial and Error
The entrepreneurs and capitalists do not have advance assurance about whether their plans are the most appropriate solution for the allocation of factors of production to the various branches of industry. It is only later experience that shows them after the event whether they were right or wrong in their enterprises and investments. The method they apply is the method of trial and error. Why, say some socialists, should not the socialist director resort to the same method?
The method of trial and error is applicable in all cases in which the correct solution is recognizable as such by unmistakable marks not dependent on the method of trial and error itself. If a man mislays his wallet, he may hunt for it in various places. If he finds it, he recognizes it as his property; there is no doubt about the success of the method of trial and error applied; he has solved his problem. When Ehrlich was looking for a remedy for syphilis, he tested hundreds of drugs until he found what he was searching for, a drug that killed the spirochetes without damaging the human body. The mark of the correct solution, the drug number 606, was that it combined these two qualities, as could be learned from laboratory experiment and from clinical experience.
Things are quite different if the only mark of the correct solution is that it has been reached by the application of a method considered appropriate for the solution of the problem. The correct result of a multiplication of two factors is recognizable only as the result of a correct application of the process indicated by arithmetic. One may try to guess the correct result by trial and error. But here the method of trial and error is no substitute for the arithmetical process. It would be quite futile if the arithmetical process did not provide a yardstick for discriminating what is incorrect from what is correct.
If one wants to call entrepreneurial action an application of the method of trial and error, one must not forget that the correct solution is easily recognizable as such; it is the emergence of a surplus of proceeds over costs. Profit tells the entrepreneur that the consumers approve of his ventures; loss, that they disapprove.
The problem of socialist economic calculation is precisely this: that in the absence of market prices for the factors of production, a computation of profit or loss is not feasible.
We may assume that in the socialist commonwealth there is a market for consumers’ goods and that money prices for consumers’ goods are determined on this market. We may assume that the director assigns periodically to every member a certain amount of money and sells the consumers’ goods to those bidding the highest prices. Or we may as well assume that a certain portion of the various consumers’ goods in kind is allotted to each member and that the members are free to exchange these goods against other goods on a market in which the transactions are effected through a common medium of exchange, a sort of money. But the characteristic mark of the socialist system is that the producers’ goods are controlled by one agency only in whose name the director acts, that they are neither bought nor sold, and that there are no prices for them. Thus there cannot be any question of comparing input and output by the methods of arithmetic.
We do not assert that the capitalist mode of economic calculation guarantees the absolutely best solution of the allocation of factors of production. Such absolutely perfect solutions of any problem are out of reach of mortal men. What the operation of a market not sabotaged by the interference of compulsion and coercion can bring about is merely the best solution accessible to the human mind under the given state of technological knowledge and the intellectual abilities of the age’s shrewdest men. As soon as any man discovers a discrepancy between the real state of production and a realizable better3 state, the profit motive pushes him toward the utmost effort to realize his plans. The sale of his products will show whether he was right or wrong in his anticipations. The market daily tries the entrepreneurs anew and eliminates those who cannot stand the test. It tends to entrust the conduct of business affairs to those men who have succeeded in filling the most urgent wants of the consumers. This is the only important respect in which one can call the market economy a system of trial and error.
[3. ]“Better” means, of course, more satisfactory from the point of view of the consumers buying on the market.