On swans…

BBC Radio 4 ran a well-made item in Analysis this week on Nicholas Nassim Taleb, known for his bestselling book The Black Swan, and his relationship with David Cameron. More specifically, it was about Cameron’s relationship with Taleb’s ideas – the episode played out a bit like an Adam Curtis documentary*. Imagine All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, replacing “Ayn Rand” with “Karl Popper”, “Alan Greenspan” with “Nassim Taleb”, and “Every US president since the 80s” with “David Cameron”. I think it’s worth a listen, and is a well-made programme, but irritated me inordinately.

To give a little background, The Black Swan event is one that is impossible to predict, but cause a radical shift – in the original statement of the phenomenon, “all swans are white” was disproven when the Europeans who’d coined the “law” went to Australia and saw black swans.

What Taleb has taken from the application of “Black Swan Theory” to the world of economics is that we shouldn’t assume we know everything and risk everything on that assumption. That we should behave as if the worst could happen at any time and plan for those contingencies. That concentration of great power and wealth into the hands of a few is a bad thing**. These might be big newsflashes for neocons, captains of industry and dictators, but for anyone left of Thatcher, Taleb is not being terribly original, and he certainly isn’t the only person to have spotted this, even during the boom years. To paint the financial crisis as a failure of intellect as opposed to a failure of leadership seems to me impressively revisionist. Poor financial sector – no one told them that creating bad debt and selling it on hidden in complex financial instruments was risky behaviour – HOW WERE THEY TO KNOW?

“Small C conservatism”, “anarchism”, “fiscal responsibility” – all of these things existed before 2007. Taleb seems fairly anarchistic himself. He thinks large companies and large government are dangerous, because if they fail, we all feel their effects. If we take this thesis (which I think is plausible) what are the solutions? Reduce centralisation of government and companies, presumably. It would seem to me that reducing corporate centralisation would best be done by something of comparable power (i.e. government), but I’m no policy expert. Arguably withdraw government support for large corporations. But reduce central government power and devolve it to smaller units, as Cameron seems to want? How does that reduce centralised corporate power and invulnerability? (Equally, devolving political power is not an act of piecemeal experimentation, by definition).

The invocation of Popper (along with this article a few months ago) in support of Tory policy just seems like a ridiculous fig leaf to me, although it’s not the first time they’ve worn it.¬†Scientists love a man in uniform, runs the old joke. But philosophers love a man in a crown. Or a house with 10 on the front, or “white” in its prefix. The auspices of power give a philosopher reach and credibility, as well as material benefits; a premier loves having a man of letters to tell them why their political philosophy is deeply thought out and profoundly correct. In The Open Society and its Enemies Popper characterises the philosopher Hegel as an apologist for a brutal and deeply unequal monarchy, Hegel’s claims that the Prussian political system represented the perfection of politics nothing more than sucking up to the rich and the powerful to line his own figurative pockets. Be careful who you cite.

I’m no Popper scholar (LSE’s John Worrall is, and he didn’t seem too impressed either) – but the theories they are using seem to come from The Logic of Scientific Discovery (which I am part way through reading) and The Open Society and its Enemies (which I have at least read). The former introduces the idea of falsifiability, the latter the idea of incremental social experimentation. Falsifiability ties into the idea that statements like “all swans are white” can only ever be disproven (by the appearance of one black swan!), never proven. Popper goes on to suggest that good science is based on building theories which are falsifiable. If you test something to within an inch of its life, and still haven’t proven it to be false, it’s doing ok. What he doesn’t say is “well let’s not bother looking at swans at all – in fact I’m not even sure swans exist” which seems to be message Cameron has taken away***.

The idea of piecemeal social experimentation, meanwhile, comes as a reaction to Popper’s critiques of messianic and utopian social movements of 20th Century like fascism and communism, and Marxists theories of historical inevitability and their desire to foresee the future of all of humanity. To remotely compare this to Cameron’s reaction to New Labour seems pretty disingenuous. Popper was writing in a (what is for me at least) a moving display of postwar optimism and the belief that conservative rationality and evidence-based approaches can make our society a better place. No grand narratives. No shining utopias. Just gradually finding ways to make things better.

*the digested arc for Adam Curtis docs seems to be “How a big idea got taken on by government and made everyone’s life a misery”. I happen to really enjoy the ones I’ve seen, but he has fairly direct MO that’s well-known enough to have been parodied

**apparently “because they might fail” rather than “because it encourages abuses of power” as every political philosopher of the last few thousand years seems to have spotted

*** swans = central government policy. This ironically seems to mirror what Adam Curtis calls “Oh Dearism”

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