Taleb on Bottom-Up Government and Federalism

January 15th, 2013

Taleb’s discussion in Anti-Fragile of bottom-up Switzerland, rather than top-down, sounds in principles of federalism.

This great variety of people and their wallets are there, in Switzerland, for its shelter, safety, and stability. But all these refugees don’t notice the obvious: the most stable country in the world does not have a government. And it is not stable in spite of not having a government; it is stable because it does not have one.

It is not quite true that the Swiss do not have a government. What they do not have is a large central government, or what the common discourse describes as “the” government— what governs them is entirely bottom-up, municipal of sorts, regional entities called cantons, near-sovereign mini-states united in a confederation. There is plenty of volatility, with enmities between residents that stay at the level of fights over water fountains or other such uninspiring debates. This is not necessarily pleasant, since neighbors are transformed into busybodies— this is a dictatorship from the bottom, not from the top, but a dictatorship nevertheless. But this bottom-up form of dictatorship provides protection against the romanticism of utopias, since no big ideas can be generated in such an unintellectual atmosphere— it suffices to spend some time in cafés in the old section of Geneva, particularly on a Sunday afternoon, to understand that the process is highly unintellectual, devoid of any sense of the grandiose, even downright puny (there is a famous quip about how the greatest accomplishment of the Swiss was inventing the cuckoo clock while other nations produced great works— nice story except that the Swiss did not invent the cuckoo clock). But the system produces stability— boring stability— at every possible level.

A cluster of municipalities with charming provincial enmities, their own internal fights, and people out to get one another aggregates to a quite benign and stable state. Switzerland is similar to the income of the second brother, stable because of the variations and noise at the local level. Just as the income of the cab driver shows instability on a daily basis but annual stability, likewise Switzerland shows stability at the aggregate level, as the ensemble of cantons produces a solid system.

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2012-11-27). Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Kindle Locations 1739-1742). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

This echoes a question I asked Taleb when I (briefly) chatted with him:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nDlfrRbK8w]