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reason: The more homogenous you become the easier it is to be wiped out.
Taleb: To make big mistakes and to be wiped out; this is the island effect at work. What we have had in this country is the progressive rise of central government. Particularly, deficits are the work of central government. [Scottish philosopher David] Hume figured it out. He said: Small states and city-states, they love commerce. And large governments love war. And that’s what justifies large government—war. There is no justification for large government other than war. And they’re not good at it.
reason: You say that you’re not a libertarian, but a lot of this overlaps with what’s considered libertarianism. So why aren’t you a libertarian?
Taleb: I’m a risk-based person. My libertarianism would be not demotic libertarianism—the philosophical libertarianism that freedom comes as a first good—so much as I want errors to be multiplied.
reason: So it’s a kind of John Stuart Mill. You like the idea of experiments in living.
Taleb: Exactly. Errors need to be multiplied. That’s it. I’m more of a left-wing conservative, if you want.
reason: Ayn Rand called libertarians right-wing hippies.
Taleb: There you go. So left-wing conservatives—that would map exactly. In a way, I’m conservationist. I want to not break things that have been around for a long time, things that have their own logic. [Successes] come from tinkering, not from some radical transformation of things.
reason: It’s curious that you are so popular in the business market, because business books will end each chapter with bullets points about what this chapter was about.
Taleb: The minute I’m bored writing I stop. Particularly with The Black Swan, [the idea was to] make sure that no content of any section can be discovered without surprising the reader somewhere. Textbooks bore you. Critics hate it because they want to skim books. People who read will not hate it. I’m an empiricist. If I sell 3 million copies of a book writing in some way, I’m not going to be lectured about style. Of course the critics come in and they tell you it’s a mess. The Black Swan sold more probably in a day than they sold in a lifetime.
reason: But you’re not going to say that the market is always right, and that 50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong?
Taleb: No. My point is that someone who just arrived in a limo does not take lectures on finance from someone who just took the subway. That’s the idea. You can take ideas, maybe, but you don’t take instructions about how to write a book. So if you want to write a book, either take instructions from the Harry Potter lady or take instructions from Seneca, who survived 2,000 years. But definitely not from some academic at Cambridge who sold 2,200 copies.
My idea of living is taking risks for causes. The more I do, the more I feel good about myself.