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What’s the Source of Failure?

How do we view failure or success? The surprising answer, found deep in human history, helps explains America’s bitter political divide and our response to poverty.

Megan McArdle’s new book, “The Upside of Down,” is surprisingly successful at explaining failure. It’s witty and personal, much like its author, an immensely talented columnist for BloombergView, and reads like a collection of essays on a single compelling theme. What’s gone unremarked in most reviews of McArdle’s book though is her theory that our economic and social values originated in response to a basic human desire—to eat. The nature of our food supply, McArdle believes, influenced how we responded to success and failure. And our policies today are still bridled to our stomach.

Mankind first lived as foragers. We hunted and gathered just to scrape by. All it took was the swipe of a bear claw to remind us that the world was well beyond our control. It was a fluid and fractious time marked by endless movement in search of food.

[pq]There are distinct worldviews tied up in foraging and farming, each essentially focused on questions of fairness. [/pq]

As foragers, we saw success or failure as largely a matter of luck. Everyone who lived also worked. Laziness was a sure way to die. Our food source was wildly unreliable and risky, so we focused on sharing more in order to smooth out risk. We were also rather more tolerant of failure. Since our focus was on getting through the day, our time horizon was dramatically limited—planning for the future meant looking days ahead, not years. Those around us were largely in the same situation, so we clustered into nomadic tribes where everyone helped out in a society marked by equality and exchange.

In time, humans discovered how to cultivate the land. We soon embarked on the grand experiment of agriculture. We settled down into farms and cities, whose surplus enabled some to take on specialized jobs in distinct hierarchies. We became tied down to our land. Our work centered on controlling the environment, which gave us a certain feeling of agency.

Success as a farmer was a matter of hard work. Laziness had little immediate consequence. That is, until harvest time. Humans began to put in place formal and informal rules in order to get people to work even without the prospect of immediate reward or punishment. We discovered justice and proportionality, all in order to focus our work on the future. Decisions had consequences for which we were held responsible, but there could be grace in repentance too.

There are distinct worldviews tied up in foraging and farming, each essentially focused on questions of fairness. The forager believes in fairness of equality, since reward is largely a matter of luck. The farmer sees fairness as a matter of opportunity, where reward comes from effort.

McArdle believes that foraging and farming still shape our attitudes today toward success and failure—and by extension how we feel about social policy and poverty. She believes that our instincts are still with the forager, but have since inherited a farmer-like culture. These two attitudes are constantly at war with the other, with battle lines now drawn between the political left and right.

Robin Hanson, an economist from George Mason University, believes that the Industrial Revolution began to slowly chip away at our farming mentality. We were farmers when we needed to be, but increasing wealth has meant affording a reversion to forager-like social redistribution. We “bought” social insurance in increasing sums along with its laissez-faire culture. We’ve become more like hunter-gatherers than at almost any time since the dawn of farming.

Interestingly, Americans especially see entrepreneurship more like foraging. We say that success or failure is largely a matter of luck in a highly uncertain world. The point is to have tried at something, anything. This sends the signal that it is okay to keep trying. And that’s the mark of a healthy entrepreneurial society. Europe, on the other hand, sees business success flowing from your blood, sweat, and tears. Failure then rests with you and you alone.

When it comes to poverty, the roles are reversed. McArdle believes that Americans are more likely to “see the poor as the authors of their own fate” who need to “pay their own fair share.” Poverty in the eyes of Europeans is a matter of catching a bad break or receiving the weight of social injustice. As a result, “they share community resources generously.”

The forager-farmer typology is an immensely helpful one for making sense of today’s differing views on success and failure. A few quibbles: For one thing, the role of violence among foragers may play an equally large role as food in explaining their view of risk and time. Upward of 30 percent of male hunter-gatherers were murdered and 90 percent of tribes were at war at least once a year. This is a different sort of risk than what McArdle describes as moving society—less about nourishment and more about avoiding an arrow in your side. Moving from gathering berries to cultivating land may have been more about exchanging mortality for morbidity, particularly since early farmers actually lived with more disease and malnourishment than their lithe and athletic hunter-gatherer brethren.

And while McArdle’s typology works well in explaining attitudes toward poverty and entrepreneurship, it may work less well in describing culture. Hanson actually elaborates on the eventual conclusions for the western world becoming more forager-like, explaining that we’d grow more willing to embrace “abortion, divorce, homosexuality, and leisure” as we became wealthier while the less rich would continue to cling to their “kids, religion, patriotism, and authority.”

But is this really true within countries and cultures? Charles Murray shows in “Coming Apart” that values around “marriage, honesty, hard work, and religiosity” have remained strong in America’s new upper class, while the new lower class withdraws from these core cultural institutions. This is a rather new development in the span of history, but a telling one. At least within America and our specific culture, there’s not necessarily a connection between growing prosperity and a forager-like mentality.

Even our views on entrepreneurship may be changing back to a farmer-like mentality. Silicon Valley in particular is coming to believe that entrepreneurship can be hitched to newly minted MBAs farming for apps. Success can be taught and rationalized. Choosing entrepreneurship is becoming more like picking any other systematized path for success. If you fail at it, well it’s your fault and why didn’t you take up banking like the Johnson’s kid down the street?

Yet as society becomes more complex, it gets harder to see the impact of any one decision. We can’t point to any individual or action as the origin of success or failure. That means we may be even more prone to see success as a matter of luck. We also grow less likely to assign direct responsibility or blame when things go wrong.

I think McArdle remains largely right that the story of America’s last century has been a movement back to a foraging culture. We will continue to see pockets of difference, but the story remains true and the typologies revealing. We must consider then the areas in which we desire a forgiving forager culture, such as with entrepreneurship, and those in which rules and order will foster flourishing. Our responses to success and failure, entrepreneurship and poverty, rest in the balance.