Taleb on Burkeanism and Non-Naive Interventionism

January 16th, 2013

In reading Taleb’s work, I have often wondered whether Black Swan Theory is inherently libertarian, or is it Burkean, or a little bit of both. In Antifragile, Taleb alludes to this point by describing his philosophy as Non-Naive Interventionism.

Let me warn against misinterpreting the message here. The argument is not against the notion of intervention; in fact I showed above that I am equally worried about underintervention when it is truly necessary. I am just warning against naive intervention and lack of awareness and acceptance of harm done by it. It is certain that the message will be misinterpreted, for a while. When I wrote Fooled by Randomness, which argues— a relative of this message— that we have a tendency to underestimate the role of randomness in human affairs, summarized as “it is more random than you think,” the message in the media became “it’s all random” or “it’s all dumb luck,” an illustration of the Procrustean bed that changes by reducing. During a radio interview, when I tried explaining to the journalist the nuance and the difference between the two statements I was told that I was “too complicated”; so I simply walked out of the studio, leaving them in the lurch. The depressing part is that those people who were committing such mistakes were educated journalists entrusted to represent the world to us lay persons. Here, all I am saying is that we need to avoid being blind to the natural antifragility of systems, their ability to take care of themselves, and fight our tendency to harm and fragilize them by not giving them a chance to do so. As we saw with the overzealous editor, over-intervention comes with under-intervention. Indeed, as in medicine, we tend to over-intervene in areas with minimal benefits (and large risks) while under-intervening in areas in which intervention is necessary, like emergencies. So the message here is in favor of staunch intervention in some areas, such as ecology or to limit the economic distortions and moral hazard caused by large corporations. What should we control? As a rule, intervening to limit size (of companies, airports, or sources of pollution), concentration, and speed are beneficial in reducing Black Swan risks. These actions may be devoid of iatrogenics— but it is hard to get governments to limit the size of government. For instance, it has been argued since the 1970s that limiting speed on the highway (and enforcing it) leads to an extremely effective increase in safety. This can be plausible because risks of accidents increase disproportionally (that is, nonlinearly) with speed, and humans are not ancestrally equipped with such intuition. Someone recklessly driving a huge vehicle on the highway is endangering your safety and needs to be stopped before he hits your convertible Mini— or put in a situation in which he is the one exiting the gene pool, not you. Speed is from modernity, and I am always suspicious of hidden fragilities coming from the post-natural— we will further show a technical proof in Chapters 18

But I also buy the opposite argument that regulating street signs does not seem to reduce risks; drivers become more placid. Experiments show that alertness is weakened when one relinquishes control to the system (again, lack of overcompensation). Motorists need the stressors and tension coming from the feeling of danger to feed their attention and risk controls, rather than some external regulator— fewer pedestrians die jaywalking than using regulated crossings. Some libertarians use the example of Drachten, a town in the Netherlands, in which a dream experiment was conducted. All street signs were removed. The deregulation led to an increase in safety, confirming the antifragility of attention at work, how it is whetted by a sense of danger and responsibility. As a result, many German and Dutch towns have reduced the number of street signs. We saw a version of the Drachten effect in Chapter 2 in the discussion of the automation of planes, which produces the exact opposite effect than what is intended by making pilots lose alertness. But one needs to be careful not to overgeneralize the Drachten effect, as it does not imply the effectiveness of removing all rules from society. As I said earlier, speed on the highway responds to a different dynamic and its risks are different.

Alas, it has been hard for me to fit these ideas about fragility and antifragility within the current U.S. political discourse— that beastly two-fossil system. Most of the time, the Democratic side of the U.S. spectrum favors hyper-intervention, unconditional regulation, and large government, while the Republican side loves large corporations, unconditional deregulation, and militarism— both are the same to me here. They are even more the same when it comes to debt, as both sides have tended to encourage indebtedness on the part of citizens, corporations, and government (which brings fragility and kills antifragility). I believe that both markets and governments are unintelligent when it comes to Black Swan events— though, again, not Mother Nature, thanks to her construction, or more ancient types of markets (like the souks), unlike the ones we have now. Let me simplify my take on intervention. To me it is mostly about having a systematic protocol to determine when to intervene and when to leave systems alone. And we may need to intervene to control the iatrogenics of modernity— particularly the large-scale harm to the environment and the concentration of potential (though not yet manifested) damage, the kind of thing we only notice when it is too late. The ideas advanced here are not political, but risk-management based. I do not have a political affiliation or allegiance to a specific party; rather, I am introducing the idea of harm and fragility into the vocabulary so we can formulate appropriate policies to ensure we don’t end up blowing up the planet and ourselves.

Instead, he only seeks non-naive interventionism.

Also, Taleb writes about the urge of “not doing nothing.”