Certainly a common enough theme around these parts is the effort of old companies with legacy business models to do everything in their power (often through regulatory capture and other political tricks) to retain their market position by regulating in a specific way. This means regulations that empower legacy firms specifically, or by outlawing and/or limiting disruptive upstarts. All too often, these firms succeed in convincing politicians (and even the press and some portion of the public) that their own potential failures mean the failure of a larger industry as a whole. And yet, that's almost never the case. In fact, the protectionism often does the exact opposite of that, in that it prevents the necessary innovations from flourishing, thereby limiting an industry and, at times, making it uncompetitive with other industries in other countries.
A recent Planet Money episode discussed this in talking to economist Tim Harford about his new book, Adapt
, which talks about how important failure is for economic growth and innovation
. This should intuitively make sense for many regular Techdirt readers, since we make this point, in a different manner, quite frequently.
In the Planet Money episode, they do a "walking tour of failure in New York," looking at things like the Gutenberg bible, which many credit with kicking off a revolution in printing, but was a giant commercial failure for Johannes Gutenberg, who put up the money for it, but couldn't find the buyers (yes, for the first printed edition of the best selling book of all time). Elsewhere, they talk about the failure of Woolworth, which had been an early retail innovator
, being one of the first retailers to realize that putting goods out where customers could see them and touch them, rather than cramming it all behind a counter, was a good idea. But, eventually, others out-innovated Woolworth as well. In many ways, this reminds me of the book Copycats
by Oded Shenkar, which we spoke about last year and which had plenty of similar stories.
Some of the discussion also reminded me of our discussion on the series of economic studies that have shown that people changing jobs is often a key indicator of economic growth
because it helps the spread of ideas and innovations faster across the economy. While that might not seem to directly impact the question of "failure," Harford mentions the research
of economist Randall Morck
, who found that (and I'm paraphrasing from Harford's brief summary of Morck's work) in places where there is greater turnover of big companies failing and upstarts taking their place, there is greater economic growth. I have to admit being unaware of Morck's work previously, but now have it on my list to dig in and check it out. I can definitely see a connection here.
Big companies often get stagnant, focusing less on innovation and more on protecting a market. In the Clayton Christensen world of the Innovator's Dilemma
, they focus on incremental innovations and market protectionism. And, as Andy Kessler noted in his most recent book, the innovators, who get around those things and unleash value
, are often derided as thieves and criminals for undermining established business models. But what comes out of those upstart efforts is, generally, much better for the consumer. And, on top of that, the collapse of those big firms often allows many of the folks, who did have good ideas and knowledge within those firms, to spread out and to join the more innovative upstarts, which will actually implement and execute on those good ideas, rather than be stymied by bosses who don't want to undercut the old business models.
This is why we should always be wary of efforts by politicians to protect jobs, companies, industries and business models. These efforts may come from a reasonable place -- in the belief that it's for the best to "protect" such a large company. But history has shown over and over again the value of creative destruction and disruptive innovation. While it may take down old legacy players, what rises in its place is almost always better for everyone.