Taleb's Ten Principles

To prevent future crashes. I think most of these are pretty good. Explanations for each principle in Taleb's FT piece

1. What is fragile should break early while it is still small.
2. No socialisation of losses and privatisation of gains.
3. People who were driving a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus.
4. Do not let someone making an “incentive” bonus manage a nuclear plant – or your financial risks.
5. Counter-balance complexity with simplicity.
6. Do not give children sticks of dynamite, even if they come with a warning 
7. Only Ponzi schemes should depend on confidence. Governments should never need to “restore confidence”.
8. Do not give an addict more drugs if he has withdrawal pains.
9. Citizens should not depend on financial assets or fallible “expert” advice for their retirement.
10. Make an omelette with the broken eggs.

39 thoughts on “Taleb's Ten Principles”

  1. We can quibble all day long about the broad attack, but what about his specific criticism of the Cato Institute whose libertarianism – at least when it comes to social security, education policy, and economics – isn’t particularly libertarian at all. It’s just corporatist.

  2. Agreed that a constitutional amendment against special treatment could be a helpful change (certainly lots of details to discuss about what “no special treatment” means). I think this is a fruitful avenue for discussion among liberals and libertarians. Your average leftist wonk tends to hate crap like the Farm bill. And many of us get scared by “green energy economy — new jobs!! develop new technology!” i.e. massive corporate subsidy.
    OK, so here’s the master list of options, by the way I think all of these have merit:
    1) Constitutional amendment prohibiting special treatment of corporations;
    2) Campaign finance reform, to reduce or eliminate the ability of large corporations to significantly help politicians directly;
    3) Countervailing institutions of competing regulatory capture: unions, grassroots organizing, nonprofit institutions.
    4) Argue argue argue, convince convince convince, develop a political constituency keenly interested in eliminating preferential treatment of corporate interests.
    I think this may be the way the country is headed, honestly. But I think the Republican coalition is too rotten-to-the-core to take advantage of it for some time yet, and the Democrats have all the power, so they probably don’t care right now!
    This may militate in favor of (5) Instant runoff voting.

  3. Joe S. –
    From everything I’ve ever read, Cato supports choice in social security and choice in education. How is giving individuals more control over their retirement dollars and educational spending corporatist?

  4. And to respond to Yglesias,
    “the larger problem is that libertarianism, even at its very best, tends to suffer from an impoverished set of ideas about how corporate domination of the public policy space might be prevented.”
    As Will basically says, regulation begets corporate involvement in politics. Just pick your favorite industry and it’s a good bet that the more highly regulated that industry is, the more lobbyists they have in Washington. Laws that impact everyone- think roads and public infrastructure- have the advantage of being everyone’s concern. But regulations of specific industries are generally left to be fought out between various corporate interests and various public interest groups.

  5. When libertarians advocate and end to government involvement in areas of the economy, Yglesias calls them “impossibly utopian.”
    But, when Cato advocates a compromise (for Social Security) that’s definitely an improvement over the status quo, but retains some state mandates to remain politically feasible, he calls them corporatist:
    It’s not immediately obvious to me what this proposal has to do with libertarianism, but it would seem to offer some prospect of profits for fund managers.
    He doesn’t play fair.

  6. Yglesias assumes a priori that a state inherently has the power to intervene into every aspect of life which in his supposition would inevitably lead to political lobbying and political pandering — ignoring wholesale that the goal of libertarianism is to completely neuter the state of any such ability to meddle causing lobbying to become useless.

    …the overall concept of a state apparatus that simply sits on the sideline watching the free market roll along is impossibly utopian. People are going to try to manipulate the state to advance their own ends.
    But of course not all is lost. Much of the world labors under hopelessly corrupt governments, wherein the police and security services are little more than shakedown operations or enforcers for local bigwigs. But elsewhere, justice is administered with a modicum of efficacy. Similarly, there are real alternatives to run-amok corporate dominance of the policy environment. There are better and worse civil services in the world, and even within individual countries some agencies work better than others. There are labor unions and advocacy groups—environmental, human rights, feminist, pro-life, and so forth—that compete with businesses and with each other to influence the direction of policy.
    What there aren’t are places where politics just somehow doesn’t happen.

    The argument is akin to saying that the world can’t have china shops where the merchandise sits undisturbed on the shelves because the world has bulls that will enter the shops and wreak havoc. While acknowledging the two are incompatible, the notion of prohibiting the entry of bulls by keeping them properly fenced seems to be completely overlooked.

    1. The very use of the term “policy” presupposes a role for government. Engaging in a policy debate at all gives tacit approval to the concept of a proper role for government in the matter at hand.
      Lets have a policy debate. Shall I hit you in the face or in the stomach? What say you?

    2. What I think Matt is suggesting is that libertarians don’t have a well-thought-out, feasible political path to achieve their goal of fencing the bull. I can’t say for sure if this is true or not. If you look at history, the libertarians have never had much power, so that may be his evidence.
      But you’re right that if there was a huge groundswell, there might be the opportunity to write some strong laws or add a constitutional amendment that fenced the bull. I think Matt is essentially saying that (1) the groundswell appears to be the libertarians’ only hope and (2) it is not going to happen. I don’t know if either (1) or (2) is true, but it may be a provocative challenge, at the very least, to pay more attention to the political way forward.

      1. There will never be a way forward if the terms of the game are set by the likes of Matt, wherein libertarians are forced to compromise their principles for the sake of making practical their utopian vision.
        The only honest political way forward is to identify areas of life that are functioning smoothly based on libertarian precepts and present these as proof of concept expanding outward from these holdouts. Sadly these are few and far between as leviathan’s tentacles have hold over so much.
        The free marketplace of religious choice is one such instance of an unregulated sphere of public life which may be mined for examples of self regulating structures and feedback mechanisms based upon free will, free association and conscious purposeful cooperation.
        I often fantasize about a libertarian religion that is able to create a full set of parallel institutions fully cloistered by religious freedom protections from government intrusion and persecution. (Is it utopian to think such a thing could come to pass without COINTELPRO infiltration and provocateuring leading to a Waco-like ending? Am I being as fatalistic as Yglesias regarding government power?)

    1. Because Matt is not interested in attacking the use of the state itself because Matt has his own agenda for what the state should USED for. He wants a powerful state. He simply wants to only be used for what he thinks is proper. What he doesn’t realize is the public choice theory (and history) shows us it’s nearly to pretty much impossible to have your cake and eat it too.
      Attacking the state itself would amount, for Matt, to biting his nose to spite his face.

      1. This is a fair critique; I’d be interested to hear Matt’s reply.
        Basically, Matt is saying libertarians are naive to think that a day will come without corrupt government.
        Libertarians might reply that Matt is naive to think that government can be selectively empowered only for “desirable” ends.
        They both have a point.

      2. Well, then one must ask:
        Which dilemma has a solution?
        Moreover, the libertarian argument isn’t simply that we can never have a corrupt government, it’s that a government used as proactive force to change or improve will always lead to corruption and thus the best way to ensure a clean and functional government is to remove the state’s power to meddle as much as possible….while fully understanding that it is the ONLY WAY to achieve this noble end that liberals and libertarians share.

    2. That’s funny… I often wonder why I never hear mainstream libertarians acknowledging that.
      Liberals have an excuse — they don’t claim that minimizing the state’s interference in markets is necessarily healthier than just moderating it. Libertarians OTOH, do claim that. Yet if you remind a libertarian that granting a perpetual limitation of liability to some agents while withholding it from others is stone cold guaranteed to create moral hazard and eventual market failures, you can generally lay out the evidence till you’re blue in the face without making any headway.
      Explain the exact same things to a liberal, and very likely they’ll get thoughtful for a few minutes and then allow as how well, maybe permanent corporations aren’t such a good idea after all.

  7. Would Cato’s privatization plan have the ancillary effect of enriching fund managers? Probably. But to argue that that fact is the motivating factor behind the plan is far-fetched at best. Presumably, his critique stems from the structure of Cato’s plan. Perhaps it isn’t libertarian enough to be obviously libertarian. But that’s a bit of a low blow because Cato has never been a place that just publishes papers on non-filthy, theoretical politics. It’s there to push broadly libertarian policy proposals in a decidedly unlibertarian world. As such it seems a bit off for Yglesias to, on the one hand, recognize that this is an inherently political world, and on the other to take Cato to task for recognizing that same fact when coming up with its policy proposals.
    Maybe the Cato Unbound editors can give DB a special reply spot this month to tackle that special sub-topic.

  8. Roderick Long, like many other left-libertarians, is an anarchist. I don’t think Yglesias’ criticisms apply very well to them.

    1. Anarcho-capitalism, also known as replacing one state with another. If you remove all non-business restrictions (i..e. government) then you have rule by business. Businesses worked within the system to get their way but without any restrictions nothing is stopping them from reshaping society to their benefit save for a moral business of equal size and strength or the collective action of the people. Either way you’ve just created more states and more governments just without democratic or constitutional oversight.

  9. Yglesias might have a point if the counter-corporate efforts of his favored pressure groups were aimed mainly at thwarting rent-seeking on the part of corporations. But as far as I can tell they spend almost none of their time doing that (quick, where does the UAW stand on the impending Detroit bailout?)– they’re too busy with their own rent-seeking. Why would anyone think it’s a mistake for libertarians not to approve of that?

    1. Well, unions do represent a moneyed, powerful political consituency willing to get behind the idea that corporations are corrupt bastards. This arguably provides some political cover for politicians opposing corporate rent-seeking. Of course, Obama said unkind things about big corporations after he gave them 85 billion dollars in the energy bill giveaway, so it’s not like it solves the problem. But I bet there is a helpful effect, in addition to the harmful effect of a brand new kind of rent-seeking.

      1. While I wouldn’t dream of challenging the authority of, say, the Teamsters on the subject of corruption, I’m not sure that a reputation for it would count as a disadvantage in the environment of naked influence-buying which Yglesias seems to presuppose. I picture the average working politician responding to counter-corporate revelations with something along the lines of “They sound like the sort of corrupt bastards who wouldn’t hesitate to reward their friends and punish their foes. Can you give me some contacts so I’ll be sure not to ask them for a contribution by accident?”
        Conversely, if corporate rent-seeking can be held in check by being deprived of political cover, wouldn’t a group of people who are opposed to rent-seeking tout court be better placed to do that than a collection of rival rent-seekers?

  10. The Land of Oz is now proposing to spend $6bil of our dollars to prop up our 3 remaining car makers, 2 of whom are GM and Ford. They are not doing that because of the power of the big corporations, rather it is the union interest at work. Perhaps it is different in the US, but much of the corporatism here is driven by the union interest. I expect pandering to greens will be a corporatism growth area.

  11. From everything I’ve ever read, Cato supports choice in social security and choice in education. How is giving individuals more control over their retirement dollars and educational spending corporatist?
    Because there’s nothing particularly libertarian about social security privatization or education vouchers. They just seem like good ideas to some libertarians who have taken them up as part of their policy agenda. There’s something libertarian about eliminating mandatory government retirement and public schools, but Cato doesn’t advocate that.
    As for the corporatism, that’s obvious.

    1. That’s absurd.
      Of course Social Security privatization and education vouchers are more libertarian than complete control of these things by the state. It’s idiotic to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
      I’m sure that many at Cato would prefer a complete end to the mandates and public funding. But, if that’s not feasible, it makes sense to advocate for the most improvements that are politically possible.
      It may be emotionally satisfying for some to insist on purity and get nothing. But, I’d rather get something.

      1. How is more federal involvement in school budgeting (vouchers) even remotely libertarian? Inter-municipal metro-region agreements would be far more responsive to local idiosyncrasies than remote authority.
        Regarding Social Security, how would allowing people to cash out and opt out not be a desirable first step toward phasing out an obviously top-heavy and unsustainable entitlement burden?
        GilM, you should be more mindful of your use of the term “privatization.” From Roderick Long’s original essay:

        Consider the conservative virtue-term “privatization,” which has two distinct, indeed opposed, meanings. On the one hand, it can mean returning some service or industry from the monopolistic government sector to the competitive private sector—getting government out of it; this would be the libertarian meaning. On the other hand, it can mean “contracting out,” i.e., granting to some private firm a monopoly privilege in the provision some service previously provided by government directly. There is nothing free-market about privatization in this latter sense, since the monopoly power is merely transferred from one set of hands to another; this is corporatism, or pro-business intervention, not laissez-faire.

        Long does make an important omission within the latter “contracting out” definition — namely that even if there is no monopoly privilege conferred — THE FUNDS EMPLOYED ARE TAKEN BY FORCE — and are by force misallocated into ‘investments’ contrary to natural market distribution.
        Opposition to government manipulation of markets by playing favorites through policy and regulation can’t be based entirely on opposition to the outcome that some unfairly benefit from the practice, but necessarily must be opposed as a market distortion that causes a misallocation — an inefficiency. Waste is the immorality here.
        Too much is ceded when it is presumed a priori that a government hand is needed to ‘correct’ natural markets.

      2. Um.. I was pretty sure Cato opposed FEDERAL school vouchers. And the first result of a simple google search was: Why Federal School Vouchers Are a Bad Idea.
        I agree that allowing people to opt out of Social Security would be better, but I, and Cato, don’t think it’s politically feasible.
        There’s nothing in the Cato “privatization” of Social Security or schools that’s in the Long second sense. They don’t advocate granting monopoly privilege in either, as far as I know.
        Again, I agree that a complete end to government involvement in these things would be better. But, it’s silly to say that movement in that direction is not remotely libertarian.

      3. What is not politically feasible is endless prevarication over what level of coercion to grant the government under the guise of crediting them with movement toward a “more libertarian” stance.
        Perhaps your conception of political power is that it flows from government and is allotted to certain groups that find favor, rather than inherent to the populace?
        Would Cato be more successful if — instead of trying to justify to the government why we the people should be entrusted with meager concessions of our usurped liberty — government were challenged to acknowledge and justify the coercive force by which the usurpation is perpetuated?
        A political movement will only coalesce if it is based upon questioning the legitimacy of pervasive government involvement in all its guises. To wit, in the voucher instance, taxes are only tangentially questioned insofar as they might be used to fund objectionable types of education for others. Rather than start from the position that educating a child is a parental responsibility and earnings are personal property, Cato accepts that educating a child is a government responsibility, and proposes we be allowed to have some money to carry out this delegated function using our own judgement.
        A bit milquetoast for my taste, and I dare say not energetic enough to animate the electorate in a libertarian groundswell, but Cato after all, are policy advisors trying to remain on good terms with the powers that be.
        For the record, I intended to call into question your assertion that “Social Security privatization and education vouchers are more libertarian than complete control of these things by the state” not realizing you were speaking on behalf of the Cato body of work in these regards. It could also be said that being in a coma is better than being dead… but it sure ain’t livin’.

      4. I don’t have anything else to say on the is-privatization-libertarian question.
        I just wanted to make it clear, for the record, that I’m not speaking on behalf of Cato; just on behalf of myself, a Cato supporter.

  12. Corporate apolegotics is exactly what had kept me from taking libertarianism seriously for a long time.
    There is nothing anti-market whatsoever about criticizing the quality of products or services, externalities of these products or services, or how much they cost. I may for example advise others that vegetables are healthier than chocolate pancakes, or that fur coats are made of cute, furry animals and that I think ill of those who buy such attire. Or I may opine that Joe the 250k Plumber and plumbers – not to mention interior designers – in general charge way too much.
    Yet when such critizism is intermingled with anti-market rhetoric, like “McDonald’s Hamburgers are unhealthy because all they care about is profits”, or directed at a target that is freqeuently attacked by rabid market opponents, like “CEOs earn too much.”, libertarians become apolegetic not only of markets, but of the product or service or the extrenalities at hand.
    So what we get is lots of zealous libertarian commentary, papers, articles, blog postings and long analysis trying to show that King Sized Hamburgers are healthy, Hummers are better for the environment than Hybrids or that polar bears are, unlike their cute looks suggest, rather murderous creatures.
    And that is how libertarians by and large come across and are remembered. It would be better to point out that the local organic grocery store is part of the market too and that Toyota is selling their Priuses for a healthy profit.
    Some self-proclaimed libertarians are really just rabid anti-statist conservatives. The liberaliziation process of the postal services in the EU enters its final stage of completion. There is much debate about this right now in Austria. I saw one of these pseudo-libertarian commenters write something utterly paradoxical and ludicrous like: “It’s about time this inefficient state-run postal service is no longer subsidized by the governement. And if the governement wants service to continue in unprofitable rural areas, it better pony the money to pay for that.”
    Many conservatives share this sentiment, albeit with less obviously contradictory phraseology.
    Never mind the federal postal service ran at a profit and still does. But even if it were subsidized, I am puzzled how somebody can perceive the exact same transfer of money as deplorable, wasteful and useless or justified, mandated and good just based on formal ownership alone.
    So will the real libertarians please stand up?

    1. Part of the leftist attack on the free-market includes (usually implicit) assertions that many consumption patterns are so incredibly irrational that they can pretty much only be a result of mass deception, usually by corporations. If that is the thread of attack you find convincing, pretty much the only way to talk you out of it involves showing how those consumption patterns are not as irrational as you think.

  13. That’s absurd.
    Of course Social Security privatization and education vouchers are more libertarian than complete control of these things by the state. It’s idiotic to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
    I’m afraid you’ve just kind of swallowed the Cato line. “More choice” – libertarianism isn’t about “choice”. It is about “liberty” which, I’m going to admit has a lot of ambiguity (as Will has pointed out) but it is a hell of a lot more defined than the rhetoric of choice.
    Now, there are two points I’m making. One is that Social Security Privatization is not libertarian. I realize that the word “privatization” makes you think that it’s privatization. But, obviously, it’s not since the whole point is to have government mandated accounts which would require a good deal of oversight.
    In other words, it’s like saying that Halliburton (or any private military contractor) is an exercise in libertarianism. Obviously untrue. Which is why, you’ll see, a lot of putatively libertarian organizations actually masquerade as “market-based” which is kind of a way of obscuring the fact that they have libertarianism as sort of a lode star, and recognizing that they don’t in fact promote a libertarian policy agenda.
    Now, as to the second question: whether Social Security Privatization is a good idea. Well, I think it’s an awful idea, worse than the present system. But you may disagree.
    The first argument – about whether it’s libertarian or not – is indisputable. The second argument – which is in fact the more important one – is open to debate, and is subject to all the sort of arguments like “better what we have now” etc.
    I want to say, though, that in spite of my arguments above, I don’t think there’s just one obviously libertarian solution to particular problems. But whatever one may say about that, Yglesias is right when it comes to Social Security Privatization.

    1. Reiterating that SS privatization is not good because it’s not perfect isn’t a very effective way of refuting Gil’s accusation that you’re letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. (If it were really equivalent to a Halliburton contract, your SS money would be invested for you in a fund of its own choosing, and you would not be consulted. Needless to say, neither Cato’s nor anyone else’s privatization scheme would operate that way.)

  14. Some self-proclaimed libertarians are really just rabid anti-statist conservatives
    All great points, except for this: I would say that some self-proclaimed libertarians are just rabid pot-smoking conservatives who will go for gay civil unions.
    In other words, they’re only anti-statist when it does not include programs they like.

  15. I would add a super-rule:
    There will always be booms and busts. Be aware of that fact and deal with it appropriately (by getting out of the way and letting failure happen).
    Obama, the delusional retard, needs to have that pounded into his skull.

  16. Wouldn’t applying 9) rely on ignoring 7)? That is, not depending on retirement investing creates reliance on Social Security (which is a Ponzi scheme). or am I missing something.

  17. 7. Only Ponzi schemes should depend on confidence. Governments should never need to “restore confidence”.
    8. Do not give an addict more drugs if he has withdrawal pains.

    Implementing these would require dismantling the entire system of centralized fractional reserve banking and discretionary monetary policy.
    As a Rothbardian I favor this, but most don’t. Something to keep in mind.

  18. (9) and (6) seem very deeply illiberal– he’s arguing for straight-up paternalism by “the smart people with clean hands” (as if that weren’t one of the oldest and most useless of all the pseudo-reformers’ tropes, from Bellamy onward) and forcibly stopping people from taking risks they want to take. Those who, honestly and with clear eyes, value freedom over certainty are deemed not to be “normal citizens.” This is scary stuff, and scarier because like a lot of demagogic appeals it mixes totalitarian fantasies with genuine and legitimate grievances.

  19. “Only Ponzi schemes should depend on confidence. Governments should never need to “restore confidence”.”
    The second rule is arguable (though only to the extent it’s vague). The first is bloody well stupid, from both micro and macro perspectives. Economies and arm’s-length business transactions depend on confidence. Period.

  20. As usual, Taleb makes sound but incredibly vague points. For argument’s sake:
    (1) So only low-risk projects should be allowed to take off??
    (2) Yes, definitely, but what if this means letting the financial system collapse? What if it means the probability of another Great Depression is 0.25? 0.5? 0.9?
    (3) Yes, but who ”crashed the bus”? People will say it was a collective bungle.
    (4) Well, you’re trading off one problem for another. Incentive bonuses play a role. You could argue instead that the bonuses should be structured differently: rather than maximize returns, maximize returns subject to a certain risk tolerance.
    (5) What does that even mean??
    (6) No one ”gave” the children dynamite. The children will find the dynamite no matter what. The dynamite should be acknowledged and supervised.
    (7) Financial markets are all about fads, trends and bubbles. I am not sure the Government can restore confidence to markets, but if it can help, why not?
    (8) What about Methadone clinics? Sometimes this is tolerable if the alternative is death.
    (9) On what should they depend for their retirement then? State generosity? A zero-risk, lower value pension? No. They should reduce, over time, the share of their pension that is invested in higher risk assets, e.g. stocks. As retirement nears, the pension is safe.
    (10) What if the omelet is toxic? Yum.

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