Why Nassim Taleb’s “Antifragile” May Seem So Familiar

Nassim Taleb’s most recently published book “Antifragile” seems both new and familiar at the same time. On the one hand, he expands on his earlier works, including The Black Swan, and Fooled by Randomness. On the other hand, Taleb coins a new word “antifragile” and discusses the idea in new ways.

In his discussion of the fragility of societies, governments, and economies, Taleb’s contrast of “fragile” and “antifragile” systems is strongly reminiscent of ideas discussed in Friedrich Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Societies.” These ideas were further expanded by Thomas Sowell in “Knowledge and Decisions.”

In Hayek’s and Sowell’s work above, and in Hayek’s Nobel Prize lecture: The Pretence of Knowledge, the authors demonstrate how the attempt to confine real world economies by theoretical models of an economy, can do real harm — despite the best of intentions. Taleb makes much the same point when he criticises governments and central banks for trying to remove risk, stress, and randomness from their economic systems — because these very things are communicating crucial knowledge to the system. Eliminate them at the peril of your societies.

Taleb’s discussion of antifragility is applied to many areas and phenomena, and is buttressed by updated examples, while meshing well with his arguments in his earlier works.

Taleb applies his “antifragile” concept to phenomena in both the human world and the natural world, spending a good amount of time discussing the antifragility of biological materials and systems — including the human body, and evolution.

For example, here is a review of “Antifragile” in the blog of a promoter of hormesis, or the use of stress to make your body grow stronger. The author illustrates how Taleb’s ideas fit with additional perspectives of hormesis.

These are important ideas that are unlikely to receive a sympathetic hearing in the halls of academia, government, or media gatherings. The modern zeitgeist has bought into the ideology of “the controlled economy and the controlled society,” for decades now. And that suits the purposes of those currently in seats of power very nicely.

In his earlier book, The Black Swan, Taleb seemed to predict the economic devastation of the 2007-2008 debt meltdown. His current work, Antifragile, expands Taleb’s vision to include more phenomena, but the spectre of large scale instability still lurks in the background.

Taleb is much more successful and prominent now, and this is reflected in much of the relaxed subtext of the latest book. Yet in many of his video appearances he has suggested that the global economy may be on the verge of a “Black Swan event” more catastrophic than the one that occurred in 2007-2008. Certainly world governments and central banks have been doubling down on debt and instituting other policies that make such a meltdown likelier by the year.

Debt may be the least of the dangers presented by the tendency of government, academia, and media to try to insulate their fiefdoms from random events while projecting a false narrative of total control for the proles. The self-correcting nature of mass economies when the natural chaos is unwisely confined by bad policy is likely to play out in ways a lot of people won’t like.

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5 Responses to Why Nassim Taleb’s “Antifragile” May Seem So Familiar

  1. Matt Musson says:

    Antifragile? Does this mean we can quit using the word Robust?

  2. alfin2101 says:

    According to Taleb, the two words apply to distinctly different concepts. In his terms, something robust will resist stressors. Something antifragile will improve and thrive on stressors.

    • Matt Musson says:

      That which does not kill us – makes us more antifragile?

      • alfin2101 says:

        Not quite. The reason that you were not killed by “that which does not kill you” is that you already possessed some degree of antifragility. Whether the near death experience increases your inherent antifragility is another question. More likely you are lucky if it does not reduce your innate antifragility.

        Robustness can be designed into a product. Antifragility is something that evolved. Engineers are trying to learn to copy natural systems and materials to imitate antifragility in new generations of manufactured products.

        When the three stooges coined the phrase: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” they never expected that anyone would take them seriously. 😉 In the real world, anything that comes close to killing a person is likely to leave them more vulnerable in some way.

  3. I agree. Knowledge and Decisions is about the limits of “articulated rationality.” In Antifragile, Fat Tony tells Socrates: you are killing the things we can know but not express.

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