The bathrooms at a certain college were atrocious for years: dirty, smelly, frequently out of order, and often out of toilet paper and hand soap. Students complained. Faculty complained. But very little changed until a certain Solomon-like professor came up with a rather ingenious solution: Close down the private bathroom used by the deans and upper management, so that they’re all forced to use the common bathrooms used by the rest of us. The idea was jointly proposed by several departments and the administration had no choice but to approve it on account of a college-wide space crunch. The private bathroom was transformed into much needed office space a week or two later and—quelle surprise—the common bathrooms have been well maintained ever since.
This would of course come as no surprise to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of Skin In the Game (2018). One of Taleb’s central claims in Skin In the Game is that people who have to live with the consequences of their actions—people with “skin in the game”—tend to make better decisions (e.g., politicians who have to send their own kids off to war tend to be less hawkish, bankers who have to invest their own money tend to be less reckless, etc.). Although it tends to make them more conscientious, Taleb stresses that skin in the game doesn’t make decision-makers infallible; it merely ensures that if things go south, those who made the mistake will have to pay for the mistake.
If, like many of my friends, you’ve been to some extent mystified by Taleb’s palpable contempt for journalists and virtue-signalling faux-leftists, Skin In the Game will clarify things for you. What bugs Taleb about people of this stamp is that they lack skin in the game. For instance, if Thomas Friedman champions the invasion of Iraq on the op-ed pages of the New York Times for weeks, and he’s later on proven wrong, he doesn’t pay for his mistake. The people of Iraq pay for his mistake. American soldiers pay for his mistake. American taxpayers pay for his mistake. But Friedman doesn’t even lose his job. Taleb can’t stand virtue-signalling faux-leftists for many of the same reasons:
“I will always remember my encounter with the writer and cultural icon Susan Sontag . . . . Sontag, who was being interviewed, was piqued by the idea of a fellow who ‘studies randomness’ and came to engage me. When she discovered that I was a trader, she blurted out that she was ‘against the market system’ and turned her back to me as I was in mid-sentence, just to humiliate me . . . while her assistant gave me a look as if I had been convicted of child killing. I sort of justified her behavior in order to forget the incident, imagining that she lived in some rural commune, grew her own vegetables, wrote with pencil and paper, engaged in barter transactions, that type of stuff. No, she did not grow her own vegetables, it turned out. . . . People in publishing were complaining about her rapacity; she had squeezed her publisher . . . for what would be several million dollars today for a novel. She shared, with a girlfriend, a mansion in New York City, later sold for $28 million. Sontag probably felt that insulting people with money inducted her into some unimpeachable sainthood, exempting her from having skin in the game. It is immoral to be in opposition to the market system and not live (somewhere in Vermont or Northwestern Afghanistan) in a hut or cave isolated from it. But there is worse: It is much more immoral to claim virtue without fully living with its direct consequences. . . . If you manage to convince yourself that you are right in theory, you don’t really care how your ideas affect others. Your ideas give you a virtuous status that makes you impervious to how they affect others. Likewise, if you believe that you are ‘helping the poor’ by spending money on PowerPoint presentations and international meetings, the type of meetings that lead to more meetings (and PowerPoint presentations) you can completely ignore individuals—the poor become an abstract reified construct that you do not encounter in your real life. Your efforts at conferences give you license to humiliate them in person. . . . I was recently told that a famous Canadian socialist environmentalist, with whom I was part of a lecture series, abused waiters in restaurants, between lectures on equity, diversity, and fairness. Kids with rich parents talk about ‘class privilege’ at privileged colleges such as Amherst—but in one instance, one of them could not answer Dinesh D’Souza’s simple and logical suggestion: Why don’t you go to the registrar’s office and give your privileged spot to the minority student next in line?”
If you’re a sucker for the false modesty that passes for genuine humility in the 21st-century West, you’re going to find Taleb’s chest-thumping style insufferable. But if, like me, you grew up on hip-hop, you’ll love it. It’s a hilarious cross between the Nietzsche of Ecce Homo (1888) and the Eminem of The Eminem Show (2002). I kept waiting (alas, in vain) for Nietzschean chapter titles like “Why I Am So Wise”, “Why I Am So Clever”, “Why I Write Such Good Books” and “Why I Am a Destiny”—all the while hearing Eminem’s “Without Me” playing in my head:
“Now this looks like a job for me
So everybody just follow me
‘Cause we need a little controversy
‘Cause it feels so empty without me . . .
A visionary, vision is scary,
Could start a revolution,
pollutin’ the air waves a rebel . . .
And it’s a disaster such a catastrophe . . .
Well I’m back, nana-na na na . . .
I’m gonna enter in endin’ up
Under your skin like a splinter
The center of attention back for the winter
I’m interesting, the best thing since wrestling.”
The AK-47 (Kalashnikov) is the revolutionary’s gun of choice the world over, not because it’s a particularly precise instrument, but rather because it’s unbelievably reliable in less than ideal circumstances. The AK-47 can fire when it’s wet, dirty, rusty, bent. It’s an amazing tool: one of the only guns to actually make it onto a country’s flag (Mozambique). Taleb wants all of the systems and institutions that govern our everyday lives to be at least as reliable as an AK-47. For instance, instead of extolling the virtues of The Golden Rule, Taleb extols the virtues of The Silver Rule:
“The Golden Rule wants you to Treat others the way you would like them to treat you. The more robust Silver Rule says Do not treat others the way you would not like them to treat you. More robust? How? Why is the Silver Rule more robust? First, it tells you to mind your own business and not decide what is ‘good’ for others. . . . Just as individuals should treat others the way they would like to be treated (or avoid being mistreated), families as units should treat other families in the same way. And . . . so should countries. For Isocrates, the wise Athenian orator, warned us as early as the fifth century BC that nations should treat other nations according to the Silver Rule. He wrote: ‘Deal with weaker states as you think it appropriate for stronger states to deal with you. . . . Conduct yourself toward your parents as you would have your children conduct themselves toward you.’ . . . More effective, of course, is the reverse direction, to treat one’s children the way one wished to be treated by one’s parents. . . . The very idea behind the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States is to establish a silver rule–style symmetry: you can practice your freedom of religion so long as you allow me to practice mine; you have the right to contradict me so long as I have the right to contradict you. Effectively, there is no democracy without such an unconditional symmetry in the rights to express yourself, and the gravest threat is the slippery slope in the attempts to limit speech on grounds that some of it may hurt some people’s feelings.”
There’s a lot of tough love for the West in this book. Although Taleb is basically a libertarian, free speech absolutists are going to hate Skin In the Game. Because one of its central themes is that tolerance without reasonable limits is like walking around with a “KICK ME” sign that you put on your own back. The Open Society cannot tolerate the intolerant:
“Can democracy—by definition the majority—tolerate enemies? The question is as follows: ‘Would you agree to deny the freedom of speech to every political party that has in its charter the banning of freedom of speech?’ Let’s go one step further: ‘Should a society that has elected to be tolerant be intolerant about intolerance?’ This is in fact the incoherence that Kurt Gödel (the grandmaster of logical rigor) detected in the United States Constitution while taking the naturalization exam. Legend has it that Gödel started arguing with the judge, and Einstein, who was his witness during the process, saved him. The philosopher of science Karl Popper independently discovered the same inconsistency in democratic systems. I wrote about people with logical flaws asking me if one should be ‘skeptical about skepticism’; I used a similar answer as Popper when I was asked if ‘one could falsify falsification.’ I just walked away. We can answer these points using the minority rule. Yes, an intolerant minority can control and destroy democracy. Actually, it will eventually destroy our world. So, we need to be more than intolerant with some intolerant minorities. Simply, they violate the Silver Rule. It is not permissible to use ‘American values’ or ‘Western principles’ in treating intolerant Salafism (which denies other peoples’ right to have their own religion). The West is currently in the process of committing suicide.”
As I hope to demonstrate in the concluding section of this essay, the Taleb we encounter in Skin In the Game bears a striking resemblance to the pragmatic Plato we encounter in The Laws.
If I ask Guru Anaerobic “What’s 2+2?” and he responds “5”, that’s the wrong answer. But at least it’s a reasonable response. Guru has responded numerically, which indicates that he understood the nature of the question. If I ask Señor Smartypants “What’s 2+2?” and he responds “APPLE”, that’s a much bigger problem, because his response fails to acknowledge the nature of the question.
If I ask Fat Tony and Doctor John “What’s 2+2?” and they both say “4”, you might be ready to reach for your gold star stickers. But the Socrates of The Republic would stop you. He’s not satisfied. Not yet. Like that annoying math teacher who wouldn’t give you full marks until you showed him all your work, Socrates wouldn’t give Fat Tony and Doctor John gold stars until they had demonstrated to him that they understood precisely why 2+2=4.
Socrates interrogates Doctor John first, after separating them. Using four of the fingers on his left hand, Doctor John shows Socrates that he understands what numbers are, what they represent, and how they can be added to each other. Socrates smiles, pats him on the head, and gives him a gold star. Doctor John, a lifelong valedictorian, lives for prizes. So, naturally, he’s delighted.
Socrates then turns to Fat Tony, who seems utterly uninterested in the gold star. As it turns out, Fat Tony really doesn’t know why 2+2=4. Nor does he care: “If it ain’t broke, fuggedaboutit.” When pressed, Fat Tony tells Socrates that he “knows” that the answer is “4” because his father, Pietro, told him so. “And how did your father come to know that 2+2=4?” “His father, my grandfather, Marko, told him.” “And how did your grandfather come to know that 2+2=4?” “Well, um, I’m pretty sure that his father, my great grandfather, Vergil, told him. It’s been, like, you know, passed down, from generation to generation.” Alas, the stony stare says it all: Fat Tony isn’t getting a gold star from Socrates.
The Socrates of The Republic would say that Fat Tony’s “4” is inferior to Guru Anaerobic’s “5” and really no better than Señor Smartypants’s “APPLE”. But the Socrates of The Laws (aka “the Athenian Stranger”) seems to have come to the conclusion that civilization depends, to a large extent, upon people like Fat Tony: people who live by rules they don’t understand, people who’ve inherited a wealth of folk wisdom from their ancestors. Fat Tony may not be able to explain why willow bark tea takes away your aches and pains, but he knows it works. He lives by a bunch of handy heuristics which keep him out of trouble (for the most part). Besides, expecting everyone to be like nerdy Doctor John is absurdly idealistic.
Most people simply aren’t interested in figuring out how things work. They’re too busy living life, raising kids, having fun, working hard, and thinking about what to have for dinner. So long as a thing works, and works well, most people really don’t care how it works. We drive cars that we don’t understand, use computers that we don’t understand, talk on cellphones that we don’t understand, pay taxes to a government that we don’t understand, obey laws that we don’t understand, and subscribe to scientific theories like evolution that we don’t understand.
The way that most of us sleepwalk through life horrified the idealistic young author of The Republic. But the older, wiser Plato, who penned The Laws, is far less troubled by the Fat Tonys of this world. The same is true of the older, wiser Taleb, who penned Skin In the Game.
—John Faithful Hamer, Welcome to Likeville (2018)