I am reading a book so exciting that I can’t refrain from sharing some of what I’m getting from it even before I’ve finished reading it: that book is Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I am finding insights that relate to the Middle Way on almost every page. Taleb is a kind of 21st Century Nietzsche – he writes with more than a touch of arrogance, a skill of polymathic synthesis, and a talent for the incisive, resounding and insightful. He doesn’t always get it completely right: but I’d much rather read a book that offers gripping insights 80% of the time and overstates itself or makes misjudgements 20% of the time, than a more cautious one that doesn’t get anything ‘wrong’ but conveys nothing of great interest.
The theme of the book is the way in which the best systems can be actually strengthened by adversity – what he calls antifragility. For example, the body is strengthened by exposure to manageable stress, and theories are improved by being challenged. Taleb does not explicitly discuss the Middle Way, but I keep finding it implicitly in the balance of stressors that are needed to create this strength in a system. The opposing position is one of false certainty that is fragile – an attribute I have often used to describe metaphysical beliefs even long before I read Taleb. This fragility is a vulnerability to the unexpected that has not been considered in the all-encompassing plan that we thought we had. Taleb has spent time as a stock trader, and the state of the market in 2008 is an obvious example of such false certainty, based on a metaphysical belief that the market had been managed in the right way this time and that the vulnerabilities of the past were over. Fragility leads to sudden and catastrophic harm, whereas antifragility is a strength that goes beyond robustness into actual benefit from these “unexpected” events. Antifragility seems to be largely cultivable by avoiding the metaphysical beliefs that create fragility.
No doubt I shall return to write more about this book when I have finished it, but for now here is a particular example that I found rather striking. One area that Taleb discusses is the question of when and how much to intervene so as to prevent possible harm – a dilemma well-known both to governments and parents. A balance has to be struck here which seems to be that of the Middle Way. This is a balance based not on finding some sort of literal middle point, but on an assessment of conditions which includes sufficient awareness of our fallibility. Taleb gives two interesting examples based on government intervention on the roads.
On the one hand is a case for intervention in the matter of speed. Our cars can increasingly manage excessive speed with ease, but we are very poor at judging the dangers that accompany speed. I also struggle myself to recognise the compounded inefficiency that comes from speed beyond a certain point. It is so tempting to drive along an uncrowded motorway in the UK at 70mph (the legal limit and usual speed of most cars) rather than 60mph, which is only marginally slower but far more efficient. There’s a strong case here for speed limits and their enforcement, perhaps at a slightly lower level than they are now. There seems to be a good case for intervention here because of our lack of awareness of our fallibility.
However, for a contrasting case, Taleb cites the experiment that took place in Drachten, Netherlands, in which traffic lights and many road signs were removed (see newspaper article). The effect of removing a lot of the kind of intervention that we are accustomed to here from ‘the nanny state’ actually seems to have been healthy. In Taleb’s language, it reduced antifragility. Minor accidents increased slightly, but people drove more carefully and took more responsibility for their actions, leading to a decrease in serious accidents. The key difference between this and the speed example seems to be that people could be made more aware of fallibility by being given more responsibility in this case (at least in the Netherlands – I wonder if it would work in other cultural settings). On the other hand, if you removed speed limits on motorways people would become less aware of their fallibility rather than more.
These examples obviously offer pointers for the political application of the Middle Way. Those on the left who tend to be more in favour of state intervention are correct in some cases, and those on the right who are in favour of ‘small government’ are also correct in some cases. What we need to beware of is attachment to a rigid metaphysical belief in a particular political ideology, but rather look more closely at the conditions at work in each case. In addition, our understanding of those conditions needs to make allowances at every stage for what we don’t know, as well as what we do know.