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reason: Why didn’t you like it?
Taleb: Too many empty suits. And also, what’s my profession? It’s to write books. I only write articles to explain some of the ideas of the books. I do technical papers and books. And everything else I do is because a publisher wants me to write op-eds.
reason: Let me put it differently: What are you hoping that your ideas add to the public understanding of how a good society would work better, and what kinds of mistake to avoid?
Taleb: It has already led to beautiful results. With [U.K. Prime Minister] David Cameron, when I was contacted by him and his administration, to go before, to help—I told him, “Listen, I’m not a public intellectual, but we can talk about my ideas through my books. I’m not going to write articles, and we’re going to have a conversation.” It led to being demonized by sections of the British public—who cares?—and as well as here. But it had an effect.
I say people can pick up these ideas very quickly. My point is to have a systematic approach to making decisions under incomplete information and under incomplete understanding of things, and build a society that doesn’t blow up if someone makes a mistake, which is the same thing. Society seems to think I have unique attributes. I’m not the first person to think of these matters. It’s just that I’ve devoted my life to furthering the cause intellectually.
reason: When you think about the future are you optimistic? Are you pessimistic? Or is that the wrong way to approach it?
Taleb: It’s the wrong way to view it. My view of the future is you don’t have to be right, you have to have a dominant strategy to act as if you were pessimistic. I don’t want the pilot of the plane to be optimistic. But I want the flight attendants to be extremely optimistic. So it’s functional. I don’t believe in beliefs.
reason: You talk about how pilots who are too comfortable with their knowledge—they’re bad pilots, the ones who make the errors.
Taleb: Exactly. You have to have paranoid pilots, stressed all the time. So technology, it weakens; the [Federal Aviation Administration] figured out it makes flights less safe.
But again I take a stance against knowledge. Knowledge isn’t what runs society. Knowledge is largely a narrative that comes after we do facts. There is so much we narrate and so much that we do without the complete theory of things. This is my central idea.
reason: Talk a bit more about capitalism. A lot of people think that what’s great about capitalism is that it creates incentives that lead to success. Actually capitalism in your view is about decentralization, about creating disincentives and failing early.
Taleb: Since Hammurabi we’ve had civilized society, people living together. We’re only able to do that when people are accountable for their mistakes.
reason: Where are the signal incidents of decentralization that’s leading to better outcomes, broadly speaking? Where do you see that either in the United States or in the West or in particular pockets and subcultures?
Taleb: Take Switzerland as a culture, where nobody can name the president easily but they can name the president of France. This is a good society because you have a lot of volatility—but at the local level, the lower level, micro level, translating to macro level stability. So Switzerland is a well-decentralized system.
The problem is size. As size gets larger you have some gains of economies of scale, whatever it is. But you have some losses in governance, in a lot of other things.