In 2017, I began a blog called Principia Politica, which continued until 2019, when this blog began. The blog is still online: principiapolitica.blogspot.com — ‘a commentary on the principles underlying politics and philosophy’. In 2019, would you believe it, Nassim Nicholas Taleb began a project with exactly the same title. And it isn’t the first time he has taken someone else’s idea and passed it off as his own. His book The Black Swan and more recent Antifragile are pale imitations of Ulrich Beck’s Risk Society, which pioneered the idea of a world of random events that unleashes many unexpected risks on a fragile world. And the idea of ‘black swan’ events is much older than the book The Black Swan. But like similar popular writes such as Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, and, more recently, Yuval Noah Harari, Taleb delights in popularising ideas that are not his own, and in the process watering them down to near meaninglessness.
Take Principia Politica. My blog approaches politics from a philosophical angle, considering questions of democracy, great power conflict, and capitalism from first principles, from which I deduce conclusions for practice. Taleb’s ‘Principia Politica’ presents a series of random propositions for statistical analysis, attempting to imitate Newton’s Principia Mathematica. But Taleb lacks any philosophical grounds with which to examine his premises, meaning his statistical methods, no matter their sophistication, have no foundation in conceptual rigour.
In March 2019, a ‘second draft’ of Taleb’s project (a mere three months after my last post on Principia Politica), Taleb gives us the following first principle to puzzle over: ‘Between the concrete individual and the abstract collective there are a certain number of tangible fractal gradations’. A ‘corollary’ of this is that ‘politics is not scale-free. One can be “libertarian at the federal level, Republican at the state level, Democrat at the county level, socialist within the commune, and communist at the family and tribe level.”’
Apart from the wonderful strangeness of Taleb, in full Trump style, quoting himself, it is astonishing the feats to which he is willing to go to state something not only utterly banal, but also vigorously untrue. As Taleb fully knows — or does he? I cannot tell — libertarianism at a ‘federal’ level immediately precludes all semblance of order below such a level. If he is referring to the political ideology, not the minor party which has no chance of ever winning federal office (as must be assumed by the small ‘l’, in contrast to the capitalisation of ‘Republican’ and ‘Democrat’), then federal libertarianism implies each being afforded such liberty as is incompatible with economic or political restrictions on free decision-making. Socialism and communism obviously constrain such decision-making, at least in the common and plain meanings of the terms, while the Republican and Democrat parties each have their restrictions they’d like to apply to the freedom of individuals, corporations, and social practices, whether to abortions or to Big Tech. One party accomplishes its restrictions, while the other pretends to accomplish its own, letting the other party off the hook. No prize for guessing which is which.
But Taleb, would you believe it, gives us a historical example of his principle of localism. When the Holy Roman Empire was abolished in ‘1806’ (a year I place emphasis on, again, on the first Principia Politica, which is still online — in particular a post, ‘Will History End?’, which I wrote as a teenager), ‘Goethe’ (surely an inappropriate comparison for Taleb’s plainly grotesque writing style) observed that people were not concerned. Why would they be: the Holy Roman Empire was, in the words of writer (another one) Voltaire, ‘neither holy, nor roman, nor an empire’. It was replaced by the Confederation of the Rhine, a league of German principalities in alliance with Napoleon Bonaparte, who laid the foundations for the modern nation-state across the countries which he conquered, and bequested the Napoleonic Code of bureaucratic administration.
This strengthened the already-rigorous bureaucracy of Prussia, which went on to conquer Germany in 1870 and establish the German nation-state, whose significance drew the attention of many ‘locales’ in the next century. The nation-state fundamentally undermines Taleb’s ‘fractal localism’: today, what happens at the global level — from climate change to the rise of China — impacts everything at the local level. In Taleb’s terms: politics is not scale-free. But scale is not dispersed and gradated — it is intertwined and interconnected. You cannot be libertarian at one level, and authoritarian at another. You must choose where you lie on the spectrum, and scale it up, down, and sideways. This is not an argument for globalism — but it is, perhaps, an argument for holism: everything is connected. Separations of the kind Taleb loves to draw are both banal and untrue.
There may be meaningful separations that help us move towards integration: but there is no meaning to Taleb’s pretender ‘Principia’, and false ‘Politica’. Contrasts would be Newton’s Principia Mathematica and Justus Lipsius’s Politica, but also the ‘intellectual brilliance’ (in Taleb’s terms) of Plato’s Republic. But like Taleb, Plato has a habit of saying stuff for the sake of it, such as the definition of justice as each performing their own work. I would not disagree on principle, and nor would I disagree in practice. But what is our ‘own work’ is much broader than the tasks of philosophy, or warfighting, or economic producing, as predominated in Plato’s imagination. Those who can think can do, and those who can do can think. For Plato, we generalise until we are ready to specialise. But what does this readiness consist in? And how will we know? And what gives Plato the right to tell ‘philosopher-kings’ how to live — after all, if Plato is one of these legendary leaders, why does he not do the deed himself?
One is tempted to say, and perhaps not without foundation, that Plato is no king, because he is no philosopher. This would be a troubling conclusion indeed, and would require we rewrite the script that Plato wrote, to which all philosophy — from Lipsius and Newton to Wittgenstein and (more trivially) Taleb — is (in Alfred North Whitehead’s terms) a mere ‘footnote’. We can learn from the past, but we must learn only in order to let it go. Perhaps this move is too extreme. We draw certain emotional strength from the past, as well as conceptual interest and historical lessons. But philosophy is too important to leave to our forbears. We must philosophise for ourselves. Only then can we build a political society worthy of kings.
But to return to the topic at hand: Perhaps, if Taleb ever reads this, I will be placed in need of defending my views, past and future. I was a seventeen year-old when I started my blog, and, quite honestly, the views I expressed then were several times more historically and philosophically accurate than the views which Taleb expressed and continues to express about the fragile world, and the fragile ego which he continues to bear. If you don’t have anything interesting or, in the terms of Taleb’s idol Karl Popper, ‘verifiable’ to say about the world, don’t say it. Or in the terms of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent’. Now, after this silent distraction, I have work to do.
Disclaimer: Any similarity between names mentioned and actual individuals is purely accidental and largely theoretical. These are fun ideas to entertain but, as always, I may be mistaken. After all, what do I know?