Taleb’s mistake

I worry that Nassim Taleb, who is right about almost everything, may be making a big mistake.

Taleb, author of The Black Swan and several other excellent books, has recently published several articles on “skin in the game”, the topic of his upcoming book. “Skin in the game” is the idea that people in a position of responsibility should face real consequences for their decisions.

He is entirely correct that it’s a blight on our civilization when politicians can destroy nations via “regime change” based on faulty reasoning and flimsy evidence. These people ruin millions of lives yet keep their positions and continue to be invited to talk shows. It’s a travesty that slavery has returned to Libya following the toppling of Qaddafi and that the horrors of ISIS have filled the power vacuum of Iraq and Syria.

But Taleb’s mistake is to say that the people pushing so hard for regime change are making a mistake (or being stupid) in doing so. From “On Interventionistas and their Mental Defects”:

So these interventionistas not only lack practical sense, and never learn from history, but they even make mistakes at the pure reasoning level, which they drown in some form of semi-abstract discourse.

An alternative viewpoint is that the interventionistas are making no mistake whatsoever and are far from stupid. Rather, they’re highly intelligent but playing a different game. They know that regime change will destroy the region and are entirely OK with it, even desiring a horrible consequence. To them, ineffectiveness would be the huge mistake.

It all comes down to the drug of the political-player, the socialite, and the high-level executive: power.

Power must be exercised to be recognized

It takes a small amount of power to do what everyone else is doing. A person who follows all of the rules has almost no power; they are no better than a good dog and they know it. So nobody follows all of the rules because it feels so good to break them. Besides, most of the time nobody is watching.

We’ve all noticed that people in power tend to break more rules and bigger rules than the rest of us. The best-connected can get away with fraud, murder, and worse: the more egregious and open the rule breaking, the more powerful the person obviously is.

These well-protected players who beat the drum for regime change are simply demonstrating their power. They’re knowingly breaking all sorts of rules, from social up through natural laws, to signal to other powerful people how high up the pyramid they are.

They know that a healthy society requires skin in the game and are intentionally flaunting their blatant violation this rule and as many others as they can cram in. They know that the Libyan slave market and the barbarity of ISIS are reverting us to pasts we’d much rather leave alone, but hold their beer and watch them bring it all back, spraying it all over the news! After all, you have to be powerful to openly shit all over the social progress we’re collectively proud of.

At the highest level, the game of power flips everything around: up is down and wrong is right, all in service of pushing the rule-breaking envelope, knowing full well how unsustainable and globally risky their game is. The worst-case scenario is that their shenanigans cause the collapse of civilization, which happens to be a wonderful demonstration of power. They win either way.