In anticipation of Season 4 which just began, I've just been rewatching the third season of the deliciously addictive HBO show True Blood. I've also been listening to Econtalk, a fascinating series of podcasts by Russ Roberts (econ professor at George Mason) interviewing the luminaries of the economics profession as well as authors and others.
Needless to say, economics and finance professors can be a rather dry bunch, tending to drone on about macroprudential regulation with nary a nod toward anyone foolish enough to be listening. Taleb is a different creature altogether, a peacock prima donna among tweedy drabs. A lot of the things he says are wrong in their spirit and surety if not their content. But he's wrong so spectacularly and with such flair and bombast that it's hard not to be charmed. (Aside: what is it with overweight male intellectuals that causes them to create their own esoteric and slightly insane diet and exercise regimens?)
In his EconTalk interview Taleb pointedly and repeatedly uses the term "mother nature" to denote the holy grail of radical libertarianism, man's original and ideal state of nature before being corrupted by civilization. His philosophy appears to be a blend of naive Darwinism and new-age drivel, boiling down to the idea that everything natural is good and everything unnatural is bad. Where "natural," of course, is defined to serve Taleb's own ideological aims.
In Season 3, Episode 7 of True Blood, Russell Edgington delivers a stirring speech on mankind's destruction of nature and his ambitions to override the (vampire) government's coddling of the fangless heathens and rid them from the Earth:
"There is only one law, the law of nature. The survival of the fittest. And we need to take this world back from humans, not placate them with billboards and PR campaigns while they destroy it. That is not authority. That is ABDICATING authority."
I'm also drawn to the idea of stripping down the diversions of modern civilization and finding simpler ways to live and be happy. The libertarian critique points out the hypocrisy of my fellow liberal environmentalists, who talk deeply about conservation yet cling ever more tightly to the most resource-expensive lifestyle on Earth.
But yet these radical libertarians have exactly the same problem. They talk about how important it is to let the market or "nature," in Taleb's words, discipline and cull the hubristic and destructive practices running rampant in society. Yet these libertarians are just as effete as the liberals, globetrotting and taping podcasts and enjoying all the fruits and freedoms of governance and civil society that they so vehemently decry.
I haven't met a single libertarian whom I surmise would even survive in the anarchistic Hobbesian world they advocate, much less thrive in it. Libertarian economists, moreover, have scarcely grappled with the lumbering contradiction at the heart of free-market-ism: survival of the fittest means that eventually the fittest capitalists will become fat, dominant monopolists, using their heft to undermine the market itself.
Man's pillaging of nature is in fact a prime example of survival of the fittest. The collapse of global fisheries and the subversion of the Earth's climate are nothing if not forceful demonstrations of our evolutionary advantage.
So where does this argument leave us, in the end? I find back-to-nature libertarianism intriguing and appealing in some of its facets. But I'm not sure what it really contributes to our public discourse on the environment or financial regulation, beyond outrage. I've also never heard a cogent explanation of how man can be a product of nature yet not of nature. Individual proponents simply gerrymander the boundary between man and nature to serve their own rhetorical purposes.
If anyone has some thoughts or comments on this philosophy, I'd be interested in hearing them!