Friday, November 30, 2012

Discovery Process as Antidote to Chaos and Volatility

The prolific author Matthew Ridley at the Wall Street Journal reviews my favorite iconoclast Nassim Nicolas Taleb’s new book Antifragile
Discovery is a trial and error process, what the French molecular biologist Fran├žois Jacob called bricolage. From the textile machinery of the industrial revolution to the discovery of many pharmaceutical drugs, it was tinkering and evolutionary serendipity we have to thank, not design from first principles. Mr. Taleb systematically demolishes what he cheekily calls the "Soviet-Harvard" notion that birds fly because we lecture them how to—that is to say, that theories of how society works are necessary for society to work. Planning is inherently biased toward delay, complication and inflexibility, which is why companies falter when they get big enough to employ planners.

If trial and error is creative, then we should treat ruined entrepreneurs with the reverence that we reserve for fallen soldiers, Mr. Taleb thinks. The reason that restaurants are competitive is that they are constantly failing. A law that bailed out failing restaurants would result in disastrously dull food. The economic parallel hardly needs spelling out.

The author is a self-taught philosopher steeped in the stories and ideas of ancient Greece (a civilization founded, of course, by traders like Mr. Taleb from Lebanon, as Phoenicia is now known). Anti-intellectual books aren't often adorned by sentences like: "I have been trying to bring alive the ideas of Aenesidemus of Knossos, Antiochus of Laodicea, Menodotus of Nicomedia, Herodotus of Tarsus, and of course Sextus Empiricus." So he takes his discovery—that knowledge and progress are bottom-up phenomena—and derives an abstract theory from it: anti-fragility.

Something that is fragile, like a glass, can survive small shocks but not big ones. Something that is robust, like a rock, can survive both. But robust is only half way along the spectrum. There are things that are anti-fragile, meaning they actually improve when shocked, they feed on volatility. The restaurant sector is such a beast. So is the economy as a whole: It is precisely because of Joseph Schumpeter's "creative destruction" that it innovates, progresses and becomes resilient. The policy implications are clear: Bailouts risk making the economy more fragile.
In short, tolerance of failures, errors and the acceptance of change through risk taking, as well as, learning from and improving on them signifies as an ideal way to deal with uncertainty from which progress springs.

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