Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a book called ‘The Black Swan’ which was about randomness and the inevitability of improbable, unpredictable but hugely disruptive events like the banking crash of 2008. Taleb, a derivatives trader, made a great deal of money out of that and other crashes by prudently investing on the assumption that something would go wrong even though nobody knew what that was. He talks about his follow-up book called ‘Anti-fragile: How to live in a world we don’t understand’
(Taleb) “Once you define fragility as one who does not like volatility and variability, and for statistical reasons you can, then the exact opposite is something that loves volatility, gains from disorder, variability, stresses and similar phenomena. This category of object doesn’t have a name, it is not resilient, it is not robust, it is something beyond. A lot of things require disorder and variability to function [Beautiful]. And of course we are harming by depriving them of disorder and variability”.
[Systems that appear to be robust, like the banking system, are in fact fragile?]
“Exactly. There are systems where the errors are small and systems where the errors are large. In a transport system, an accident lowers the probability of another accident. We never let an error go to waste. On the other hand the banking system, the failure of a bank makes the next bank failure more likely. It is not a healthy system”.
[In a world of big top-down organisations it is very difficult to organize?]
“It is actually simple. You can come up with single rules. The big thing for me is to transfer fragility from the individual to the system. Skin in the game. You get harmed by your mistake. A bureaucrat in Whitehall is not harmed, but if you live in a village you feel you’ve made a mistake. You have this kind of shame checking you. Decentralisation is a must. Mathematically I show how size compounds mistakes.” [Amazing]
Taleb doesn’t identify as a libertarian, but he often sounds like one. He has argued that we need to build a society where major actors have “skin in the game” and our public intellectuals can bloviate without subjecting the rest of us to the consequences of their bad ideas. He supported Ron Paul in the 2012 presidential election and has cited the libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek as an influence.
Taleb has called New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman “vile and harmful” and coined the phrase the “Stiglitz Syndrome” after Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, which refers to the phenomenon of public intellectuals being held utterly unaccountable for their bad predictions. Paul Krugman and Paul Samuelson are among Taleb’s other Nobel laureate bête noires.
Antifragile: Things That Gain from DisorderTaleb’s new book is Antifragile: Things that Gain with Disorder, which argues that in order to create robust institutions we must allow them to build resilience through adversity. The essence of capitalism, he argues, is encouraging failure, not rewarding success.
Reason’s Nick Gillespie sat down with Taleb for a wide-ranging discussion about why debt leads to fragility (5:16); the importance of “skin in the game” to a properly functioning financial system (10:45); why large banks should be nationalized (21:47); why technology won’t rule the future (24:20); the value of studying the classics (26:09); his intellectual adversaries (33:30); why removing things is often the best way to solve problems (36:50); his intellectual influences (39:10); why capitalism is more about disincentives than incentives (43:10); why large, centralized states are prone to fail (44:50); his libertarianism (47:30); and why he’ll never take writing advice from “some academic at Cambridge who sold 2,200 copies” (51:49).
Produced by Jim Epstein; camera by Epstein and Anthony L. Fisher.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the bestselling author of ‘The Black Swan’ and one of the most radical and iconoclastic thinkers of our times, visits the RSA to reveal how to thrive in an uncertain world.
In ‘The Black Swan’, Taleb showed that highly improbable and unpredictable events underlie almost everything about our world. In his new book Antifragile, he provides a blueprint for living in a Black Swan world. Standing uncertainty on its head, making it desirable, even necessary, Taleb proposes that things be built in an antifragile manner. The antifragile is beyond the resilient or robust. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better and better. The book spans innovation by trial and error, life decisions, politics, urban planning, war, personal finance, economic systems, and medicine, in Taleb’s uniquely interdisciplinary and erudite style.
At the RSA, Nassim Taleb will show how the antifragile is immune to prediction errors and protected from adverse events, and will consider a number of critical questions, such as: why is the city-state better than the nation-state; why is debt bad for you; why is what we call “efficient” not efficient at all; and why do government responses and social policies protect the strong and hurt the weak?
Speaker: Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University’s Polytechnic Institute and author of ‘Antifragile: how to live in a world we don’t understand’ (Allen Lane, 2012).
Discussant: Rohan Silva, senior policy adviser to the Prime Minister at No 10 Downing Street.