Shun Abstract Universalism, Embrace Risk

by James A. Bacon

I don’t always agree with him, but I regard Nassim Nicholas Taleb (author of “The Black Swan,” Antifragility,” and “Skin in the Game,” among other works) as the most original and innovative thinker of our era. He is one of the very few people I follow on Twitter. In today’s Sunday sermon, permit me to highlight an excerpt from his writings that summarizes many of my own sentiments:

When young people who “want to help mankind” come to me asking, “What should I do? I want to reduce poverty, save the world,” and similar noble aspirations at the macro-level my suggestion is:

  1. Never engage in virtue signaling;
  2. Never engage in rent-seeking;
  3. You must start a business. Put yourself on the line, start a business.

Yes, take risk, and if you get rich (which is optional), spend your money generously on others. We need people to take (bounded) risks. The entire idea is to move the descendants of Homo sapiens away from the macro, away from abstract universal aims, away from the kind of social engineering that brings tail risks to society.

Doing business will always help (because it brings about economic activity without large-scale risk changes in the economy); institutions (like the aid industry) may help, but they are equally likely to harm (I am being optimistic; I am certain that except for a few most do end up harming).

Courage (risk taking) is the highest virtue. We need entrepreneurs.

Bacon’s bottom line: Those who seek to impose their abstract universal ideals on others — whether borne of religious conviction, faith in communism or fascism, or a quest for cosmic justice — have inflicted immeasurable harm upon the world. If you want to improve the world, go into business with a product, service or idea that will meet other peoples’ needs. If you want to alleviate suffering, focus on the suffering you encounter in your own life.