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5 December 2012

Nassim Nicholas Taleb and his enemies

In the process of becoming rich, famous and outspoken, Nassim Nicholas Taleb – the best-selling author of The Black Swan – has accumulated enemies.

With the publication of Taleb’s latest book, entitled Antifragility, his critics are out in force and putting the boot in. A prime example is a hostile review by David Runciman in the Guardian, which kicks off with a useful description of what Antifragility is all about: 

  • "The core idea behind this book is simple and quite enticing. Nassim Nicholas Taleb divides the world and all that's in it (people, things, institutions, ways of life) into three categories: the fragile, the robust and the antifragile. You are fragile if you avoid disorder and disruption for fear of the mess they might make of your life: you think you are keeping safe, but really you are making yourself vulnerable to the shock that will tear everything apart. You are robust if you can stand up to shocks without flinching and without changing who you are. But you are antifragile if shocks and disruptions make you stronger and more creative, better able to adapt to each new challenge you face. Taleb thinks we should all try to be antifragile." 

Runciman also provides some clues as to the style of the book:  

  • "One of [Taleb’s] bugbears is the fragility of most of what passes for ‘knowledge’ – especially the kind produced by academics – which he thinks is so hung up on order and completeness that it falls apart at the first breath of disruption. So he has gone for deliberate disorder: Antifragile jumps around from aphorism to anecdote to technical analysis, interspersed with a certain amount of hectoring encouragement to the reader to keep up." 

Runciman doesn’t like this approach at all. It is, he says, "a big, baggy sprawling mess" and, even worse, an attempt to "show how much more interesting an argument can be if it resists being pinned down."

In actual fact, Taleb does pin down his arguments – and not only on the page. Much of his new book is used to document how he lives by his theories to a remarkable degree – not least in the investment strategies he pursued in the run-up to the financial crisis. Whereas most of the financial sector was carrying on as if the debt-fuelled bubble economy would expand forever, Taleb saw what was coming and structured his investments accordingly. This is how he became so rich.

Contrast his example to that of the establishment. Did the mainstream economists stake their fortunes on the accuracy of their predictions? One must assume not, otherwise they’d all be ruined by now.

Taleb is not one to avoid the words ‘I told you so’ – something which gets up the up-turned noses of his establishment critics. But, that is not the only reason for the hostility directed at him. Taleb has found new ways of annoying people, especially those on the left. David Runciman identifies their main complaint:

  • "Taleb thinks modern states become fragile when they get into debt, and that a prerequisite of political antifragility is rigid fiscal conservatism." 

Leftwingers enjoyed The Black Swan because it exposed the intellectual bankruptcy of the financial establishment. However, though Taleb continues to excoriate the cheerleaders of vulture capitalism, he also shows that they are all of a piece with the advocates of debt-fuelled statism.

In other words, Taleb, in his own defiantly eccentric, willfully cantankerous fashion, has shown himself to be a proper conservative. And his critics – whether of the left, right or centre – don’t like that at all.


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