Antifragility Without Taleb

The concepts of antifragility and the black swan have become synonymous with Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This is unfortunate, as these ideas are not unique to him, and Taleb as a social media drama queen is doing more to discrete his philosophy at this point.

That’s why it’s worth untangling the philosophy behind antifragility from partisan talking points, Twitter tantrums and poor examples in order to reveal a rich philosophy.

The substance of Taleb’s ideas

Taleb claims to intentionally write in meandering prose so that it’s impossible to summarize him. This, of course, is nonesense. His main ideas run something like this:

  1. We like to think of the world in simple and predictable models. While this works much of the time, there are rare and seemingly unexpected fat tail events, known as black swans.
  2. Because our standard models don’t take black swans into account, hidden risk looms behind seemingly safe and predictable events.
  3. Rather than maximizing gains during non-black-swan times, survival depends on the ability to weather black swans. Think of an asset portfolio that holds value during a recession. Contrast this with one optimized to grow during a bear market yet becomes worthless during a recession.
  4. The most important ethical principle is skin in the game, not separating risk from reward. Taxpayers bore the entire risk of banking in 2008, while only bankers reaped the profits.
  5. Antifragility, the ability to become stronger in the midst of chaos and unpredictability, is even better than resiliency during a black swan event.
  6. The Lindy effect informs what’s antifragile: the world is inherently conservative, things that have survived thousands of years are more likely to be antifragile than something new.

There’s nothing particularly controversial in the above points, which are laid out in the Black Swan and Antifragile.

These points run against the eternal growth at all costs ethos and pits Taleb against his fist wave of opponents. Take index fund investing. In normal times they provide a steady drip of returns from the stock market, but this is incredibly risky to use as a retirement plan. Had you retired in early 2007 to live off of index funds, you’d have lost most of your assets. This is Taleb’s point. We need systems that are designed to not blow up rather than temporarily maximize gains.

Taleb takes the logic of antifragility beyond financial markets. Any institution that’s “too big to fail” creates risk and transfer it to society, because we know it will eventually fail on a long enough timeline. He also applies this to health: foods that have been eaten for thousands of years (better still, pre-agricultural foods) are better for us than official dietary recommendations. When you see people struggling with obesity and type II diabetes while dutifully eating what mainstream medicine tells them to, Taleb has a point.

Taleb liberally draws on the classics, which is to be expected from someone touting Lindy. This is where he’s a joy to read. Montaigne, the Stoics and early Christians were dealing with the same human condition as we are today. For many modern readers like myself, a turn to older literature and philosophy is eye opening. It’s largely thanks to Taleb that I became interested in ancient Western philosophy and have taken a more favorable view of religious philosophy.

Taleb the persona

Had Taleb stuck to this general thesis, hashed it out with more examples and practical advice, I don’t think he’d be particularly controversial. But that’s not Taleb. Instead, he’s a pugnacious social media bully.

Anyone who disagrees with Taleb is immediately branded an intellectual yet idiot. It’s not that the piece about the IYI isn’t spot on in many cases. It is. I’ve met plenty of managers in the tech industry who are IYIs to a T. Nonetheless, describing every single person who disagrees with you as an idiot doesn’t build constructive dialogue.

Taleb doesn’t need dialogue or debate, since he’s never wrong in his own mind. Even when he’s obviously incorrect, he simply clamps down and screams about his opponents on Twitter. This is unfortunate. I’d love to see robust discussions and refinements of his ideas, the sort of respectful debates that are common on the so-called intellectual dark web.

Deeper scrutiny of Taleb’s examples

The closer you start to scrutinize Taleb’s concrete positions, it’s apparent he’s a partisan hack and dilettante in many respects.

One of Taleb’s key ideas is fuck you money. In theory, someone would have enough money to buy intellectual independence. He transfers this idea to a political doctrine that a business mogul makes an excellent ruler, since they have so much money as to no longer be interested in personal gain.

It’s a lovely theory. Actual examples of this are few and far between. Instead, history is rife with examples of oligarchs turning to politics to serve their business interests. Even today, I don’t see Bill Gates working against the patent trolling that made him a billionaire or Warren Buffet campaigning against the anti-competitive moats. Billionaires might try to salvage their legacies, but even with what should be more than enough fuck you money, they aren’t going to dismantle the system that made them rich.

Taleb also prides himself as being the ultimate bullshit detector. This makes his support for Tump all the more curious since most evidence points to Trump, his inner circle and appointees being grifters and seeking to maximize personal profit at public expense. Taleb fell for the reality TV persona of Donald Trump hook, line and sinker. This makes all the criticism of corruption under Obama a bad faith argument — the grift and personal enrichments under the Trumps are unprecedented.

Much ink is devoted to attacking Saudi Arabia. It’s a fragile monarchy supported by oil that wages war and spreads its toxic ideology. No argument from me. My issue is that this is equally true of Russia, yet Taleb has nothing but fawning praise for Putin’s Russia.

Taleb claims to love localism and weak federal states. This is precisely what the EU is. A weak unifying structure that has made sub-national localism possible.

This type of hypocrisy and contradiction appears almost every time Taleb cites examples of his ideas. It’s unfortunate since it makes the whole concept of antifragility look like Ayn Rand 2.0.

The non-Talebian antifragility reading list

The Black Swan and Antifragile are fine reads if you’re willing to sift through the hubris to get at the good parts. Otherwise, there are better books that hit at the same concepts.

Messy by Tim Harford is the best place to start. It’s a fun read and introduces well-intended schemes that backfired. The real world is inherently messy and fighting against that yields unpredictable second-order consequences.

Not buying into the hype over technology is one of my favorite things about Taleb. Just throwing your hands in the air and screaming Lindy isn’t a great argument though. Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil lays bare some of the fallacies at the heart of techno-utopianism.

Lindy tends to cherry pick from the past, and is plagued by suvivorship bias. Evolution is a conservative process and classics have staying power, nonetheless it’s absurd to overlook the shortcomings of any supposed golden era in the past. The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond get into this. Sapiens by Yuval Harari covers some of the same material but the techno-utopianism is a turn off.

Christopher McDougall’s Natural Born Heroes outlines most of the health claims Taleb talks about and is a great read to boot. For an even shorter introduction to antifragility and health, check out Scott Carney’s TEDx talk. His book What Doesn’t Kill US is worth the read if you are particularly interested in cold exposure.

If you want a modern introduction to the philosophers of yesteryear, you can’t go wrong with Sarah Bakewell or Alain de Botton.

That’s just a start. There’s so much more to antifragility than Nassim Taleb.