Body-building for nation states

Cut through Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s lofty pretences and you discover some insightful remedies to society’s ills.

Emmet Livingstone

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Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the self-proclaimed scholarly option-trader, is many things to many people. Government adviser, bodybuilder and scourge of journalists and academics, his new work marks his reinvention as a philosopher. Made famous off the back of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, a book explaining the existence and reaction to freak events, Taleb’s career has ridden the wave of the global financial crisis ever since. Antifragile is the core of his thinking distilled into a treatise that is half-philosophical musing, half-autobiography; it is his magnum opus.

Our economic and political systems are tainted by fragility, he argues, a characteristic that leaves us more open to black swan-like disasters. To protect against the worst calamity is to encourage the opposite of society’s endemic fragility. Taleb’s insight is that there is no way to describe the opposite of fragility. The concept is not part of our mental apparatus. Typically, one would give ‘robust’, or ‘strong’ as an antonym to ‘fragile’, but the proper opposite of something fragile is not what that merely withstands stress, but what is strengthened by it, hence anti-fragile.

Using this apparently simple framework, the ‘triad’ (fragile, robust, anti-fragile), Taleb produces a bizarre but exhaustive table of professions, politico-economic systems and ideas, and spends the rest of the book showing why those that fall under the anti-fragile column are superior. Things are made more anti-fragile, Taleb claims, by allowing the regular stress factors to run their course, permitting mistakes or disasters to occur so that the system learns and, over time, grows stronger. A prostitute who knows the vagaries of the street is in fact better off than a corporate lackey; when the economy goes bust, she will still be working (it is better to be self-employed). Applying the same logic, the banks should have been allowed to fail in 2007 because the bailout contributes to a system which, when it does collapse, will now do so in a more spectacular fashion.

This observation seems justifiable: organic, diffuse systems cannot be controlled by the few people who endeavour to do so. In fact, this is the extent of his argument. Adopt a chary approach to avoid risk in all circumstances. This is not, however, the extent of the book. He applies his logic to random areas of life that interest him, while littering chapters (or ‘books’ as he calls them, to feign seriousness) with readable, but self-serving references to the classics. A typical Taleb claim makes a discerning observation backed up with a boast about how conversant he is with Cicero. His is the most irksome kind of scholarship, more a flaunt of personal erudition than serious argument. What’s more, he uses an invented terminology to express himself, appending the book with a list of explanations, while paradoxically deploring the jargon of academia.

Nevertheless, his claims should be taken seriously and the institutions that receive the most caustic criticism are the media, academia and government. These analyses are among his most interesting and amusing. The government and academia suffer from what he drily calls the ‘Soviet-Harvard’ fallacy: top-down research initiatives resulting in papers that are only read by those wishing to become research directors themselves. Society benefits from its true builders – entrepreneurs and traders – not academics. The numerous failures of businessmen are heroic acts, according to him, ensuring that some succeed where others fail.

In a futher example, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is fragile, draining taxpayer’s money to no obvious end, but technology start-ups are anti-fragile, and can produce global changes. The same is true of governments, which expend enormous energy analysing data that in effect cannot be analysed. Taleb’s most grinding and repetitious statement is that accurate predictions from so-called experts are not only impossible, but dangerous: ‘The absence of evidence does not entail evidence of absence.’ As journalists are frequently involved in this form of analysis and prediction, Taleb sees them as scum, harming his ideal, anti-fragile übermensch.

In essence, though, Antifragile argues an economic liberalism and a weakened, decentralised state. These are more than just the old arguments, the devil is in the details: a model state, or indeed any institution, is one that maximises exposure to small failures for a potential pay-out, much like bodybuilding tears muscle so that it grows back stronger. What should be harnessed is the Silicon Valley mantra of ‘fail fast and fail hard’ rather than the static ideology of large corporations. Even though this message, repeated throughout the book, is irritatingly disorganised and supplemented with the smug boastfulness of the autodidact, the point is telling. The great successes since the Industrial Revolution have been borne not of academic researchers, but of self-taught dreamers. To mirror their successes, society must imitate their ethos.

Not being academically rigorous is also perhaps a strength. Taleb insists in his introduction that he only has one idea, and has never had any others. In that light, his bombast and self-aggrandisement can be read with amusement, acting as a learned distraction before the same point can be repeated again, using another anecdote.

Academic philosophy is as much a victim of Taleb’s criticism as any other discipline, being read only by other academic philosophers. Too often popular philosophy is revamped self-help. Antifragile fits neither category easily, ranging between Zizek and Oprah Winfrey. But, it is that singularly uncommon thing: readable philosophy.

Emmet Livingstone is a former spiked intern.

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