Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Random House, 2018
To review Skin in the Game is a risky undertaking. The author has little use for book reviewers who, he tells us, “are bad middlemen. … Book reviews are judged according to how plausible and well-written they are; never in how they map the book (unless of course the author makes them responsible for misrepresentations).”
The risk is very much worth undertaking, though, because Skin in the Game is an excellent book, filled with insights. These insights stress a central antithesis. Irresponsible people, with what C.D. Broad called “clever silly” intellectuals prominent among them, defend reckless policies that impose risks on others but not on themselves. They have no “skin in the game,” and in this to Taleb lies their chief defect.
Interventionist foreign policy suffers from this defect. “A collection of people classified as interventionistas … who promoted the Iraq invasion of 2003, as well as the removal of the Libyan leader in 2011, are advocating the imposition of additional such regime change on another batch of countries, which includes Syria, because it has a ‘dictator’. So we tried that thing called regime change in Iraq, and failed miserably. … But we satisfied the objective of ‘removing a dictator.’ By the same reasoning, a doctor would inject a patient with ‘moderate’ cancer cells to improve his cholesterol numbers, and proudly claim victory after the patient is dead, particularly if the postmortem showed remarkable cholesterol readings.”
But what has this to do with risk? The fallacy of the interventionists, Taleb tells us, is that they disregard the chance that their schemes will fail to work as…