Is Donald Trump anti-fragile

Essays by Nassim Nicholas Taleb : Thinker of the unknown

How easy it is to say that one only knows one thing for certain: namely, to know nothing. It is much more difficult to talk about the unknown. Nassim Nicholas Taleb has written five books on this subject, which together form the "Incerto" series. Photos show him in a black turtleneck with a grayed Henriquatre beard. Taleb has a history as a successful financial trader on Wall Street and is one of those people who claims that Donald Trump should be judged by his actions, not his speeches.

Taleb's most successful work to date "Black Swan" (2007) sold millions and was about the unpredictability of extreme events. Ironically, Taleb has since been one of the few stock market insiders who saw the financial crisis coming. Sayings like "Once a trader, always a trader" or "Most intellectuals are idiots" are among the mantras of the late fifties, who are often presented as a kind of guru.

In the last “Incerto” volume for the time being, Taleb, now a professor of risk management at New York University, turns to ethics, a topic that he had already touched on towards the end of his last book “Antifragilität” (2013). “Skin in the Game” (for example: playing with skin and hair) is about responsible action in an uncertain world, comes across as ironic and casual as usual, but claims general validity.

Everything starts with the "Black Swan"

The author formulates his main thesis in two dozen text sections that do not necessarily build on one another. According to this, a lack of personal risk leads to irresponsible behavior. Fatally, the lack of "skin in the game" - allegedly an expression of the multibillionaire Warren Buffett - is pronounced among the actors who are responsible for central economic and political issues today.

Anyone expecting a forced march through the history of the ethics of responsibility from Aristotle to Hans Jonas will be pleasantly disappointed. In fact, Taleb is pursuing a much more original project and avoiding the temptation to make a grand theory narrative. Once again it all starts with the "Black Swan". For Taleb, black swans are events that cannot be predicted because they have never occurred. Predictions about the height of a child who is about to give birth can be very accurate. It can be assumed with a high degree of probability that it does not exceed one meter. On the other hand, a prediction about the account balance of any passerby cannot be made with such certainty. Wealth sizes do not obey the normal distribution, as Carl Friedrich Gauss based his theory of probability. Samples don't help either. The next person's account balance can theoretically overshadow anything that has existed.

Convicted war opponent and green

I knew long ago, one might argue. But maybe not true, as many attempts to rationalize, for example terrorist attacks, are always about explaining to the “risk-averse” and “instinct-driven” average person that they expose themselves to a much higher risk every day when driving a car. Prize question in Taleb-style: When was the last car accident with more than 1,000 deaths?

This becomes relevant when it comes to wars or ecological risks. Here you come up against the limits of simple cost-benefit considerations. If the indirect costs of a military intervention or an encroachment on the ecosystem cannot be foreseen, and according to Taleb they never are, then such actions should be avoided. Here he presents himself as a staunch opponent of war and a green man. On the other hand, he is strictly conservative when it comes to political organization. Ultimately, structures are much easier to set up than to dismantle: “Historically grown” is the same as “particularly resilient”. The Romans, he writes, did not judge their political order according to whether it made sense, but rather according to whether it worked. His maxim is: "Systems learn by eliminating parts."

Success only with a certain amount of personal risk

This leads to Taleb's conviction that, as a libertarian and market radical, he has opted for the lesser evil over a centrally planned economy. In any case, this tends to "confirm the privileged in their elite status". The situation-specific agreement between two contractual partners on the distribution of their risks is his ideal. Big bureaucracies are not able to do this. Only a certain personal risk leads to success.

Significantly, Taleb did not choose unworldly leftists as his favorite enemy, but rather liberal mainstream thinkers such as Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins. Taleb not only attests to their lack of mathematical competence, but also criticizes their fixation on the individual - still the top benchmark in empirical social research and psychology. He considers this isolation of a supposedly autonomous unit to be dangerous. He illustrates this with the east coast phantasm of the "irrational" white lower-class man. On the other hand, he advocates a kind of dynamic system perspective that takes interactions and changes seriously.

We don't need new universalisms

Just as impressive as his mental flexibility is his informal tone. Taleb cheerfully makes use of religious thinkers from antiquity and the Middle Ages, the scientific philosopher Karl Popper, the economist Friedrich von Hayek or Warren Buffett. And even if Taleb's idealization of the no-bullshit businessman threatens to get on the nerves and the German translation does not quite do justice to his irony, it can still be read profitably.

If “the anthropological security of modernity” (Ulrich Beck) increasingly “consists of quicksand”, we may not need any new universalisms, pseudo-rationalizations or even utopias. Maybe we just need a better awareness of Black Swans and the right courage to take risks. This book can help with that.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Skin in the Game. The risk and its price. From the American by Susanne Held. Penguin, Munich 2018. 384 pages, € 26.

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