June 22, 2011

The three classes of conservatives, their origins, and their futures

Nassim Taleb has a uniquely helpful way of categorizing people and institutions based on how they are affected by shocks, whether in some physical sense (like if they take a fall, do they break a bone or get stronger) or in an epistemic sense (like if some piece of their worldview is wrong, do they collapse or grow). See his easily readable presentation here, and check out his blog for more detailed examples.

His three classes are "fragile," "robust," and "anti-fragile." When given an unexpected shock, fragile things tend to break, robust things tend to heal back to where they were before, while anti-fragile things actually grow stronger from the shock.

We can use this lens to distinguish between groups who all call themselves "conservative" but in fact differ fundamentally.

The fragile conservative is the helicopter parent type: they prefer a system that is so shielded from risk that it becomes weak and unable to withstand life's inevitable shocks. That creates a positive feedback loop, as the mother of an incredibly frail and sickly child instinctively tries to shield it even further, until the kid is incapable of performing basic life functions on its own, and is hooked up to a clutter of machines. Their motto is, "You can never be too worried."

The robust conservative is the traditionalist type: they prefer a system that has withstood the test of time, or more specifically it has passed a survival test among rival systems. As long as you don't really whack it over the head, it'll heal itself. The aversion to blind trial-and-error limits the amount of further progress that could be made, but they are fine with that because the system can only heal itself up to a certain level of injury before breaking, and discovering exactly where that threshold lies is not worth the risk of blowing up society. Their motto is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" (though they would never use those exact words).

The anti-fragile conservative is the hillbilly (not redneck) type: they prefer a system, never explicitly detailed, that not only withstands shocks but benefits from a good deal of rambunctiousness. They are too restless to sit through yet another generation of the same ol', same ol' and want to tinker around with things to see if something better can be done. It is not radically experimental, which would be like a genetic mutation rate that was so high it prevented parents from faithfully passing on fitter genes to their offspring. Nor is it experimental for its own sake -- only to discover better adaptations. Their motto is, "It may taste like shit, but it'll put hair on your chest."

Taleb already applied the taxonomy to modes of subsistence, but there's more to add. The fragile conservative is a product of single-crop agriculture or modern market economies, and their prototypical ethnic group today is the Ashkenazi Jews, forced into and adapted to a managerial niche in Central and Eastern Europe.

The robust conservative is a product of diversified agriculture -- not that there might not be a dominant, staple crop, but there is still a web of other crops to fall back on if one gets struck. Being more robust, these tend to be larger and more enduring farming societies, and their prototypical ethnic groups are the Han Chinese in Asia and a good deal of the French and Germans in Europe. The hunter-gatherers would probably have produced these kinds of conservatives, but their way of life was not robust enough to withstand the incursions of horticulturalists, agriculturalists, and pastoralists.

The anti-fragile conservative is not a hunter-gatherer, as their way of earning a living does not have the risk/reward set-up that allows for really huge pay-offs. Instead, they are a product of nomadic pastoralism, and also of groups with mixed agriculture and pastoralism. In such societies, after a string of unsuccessful raids, a herdsman may run off with dozens or hundreds of a rival's livestock, increasing by orders of magnitude his pre-existing stock. (The large amount of meat brought down by a hunter who kills a giraffe cannot be stored as flocks of animals can be.) Their prototypical ethnic groups are the Near Eastern Semites (for purer pastoralism), along with the races from the hilly and mountainous parts of Europe such as the Scottish and Italians (for agro-pastoralism).

Taleb points out that the fragile systems are doomed, and indeed the long history of monoculture farming and the brief but disturbing history of hyper-specialized capitalism seem to confirm that. Entire ways of living that were robust have nevertheless nearly vanished, such as hunting and gathering.

Most of history has been a contest between larger and more diversified, though more static, farming societies vs. smaller and even more diversified, and far more dynamic, herding societies. Depending on exactly what window you choose, either one could be seen as having the upper hand. However, the most genetically prolific man in history was Genghiz Khan from the pastoralist Mongols. Niall of the Nine Hostages in agro-pastoralist Ireland ranks among the most prolific too. Genes for digesting lactose have spread across much of the globe thanks to milk-drinking pastoralists. And culturally, by far the most dominant language family is Indo-European, which was spread by an initially tiny group of agro-pastoralists, while the dominant religions are the three monotheisms originating from pastoralist tribes of the Ancient and Medieval Middle East, perhaps with a mixture of pagan Proto-Indo-European mythology. Rock music took the world by storm, and it was cooked up by Scotch-Irish hillbillies and Britons with noticeably non-Anglo surnames like McCartney, Lennon, McCulloch, Jones, etc.

So while large and diversified agriculture has not disappeared, it does look like the future lies with a society that is more pastoralist in character -- smaller in scale, less crowded in density, diversified, offering rare but fantastically high pay-offs, stewardship of the environment, treating animals with dignity instead of as beasts of burden, frequent social interaction, lively music and dancing, a culture of honor and hospitality, warmhearted and good-looking girls... and you get the idea. Again I ask, is Australia the country of the future?


  1. that's quite intriguing.

    i would almost think the fragile conservatives are ironically socialist countries, the traditionalists are mixed economies, and the robust are the more free market economies.

    in socialism, the state tries to keep things stable and increases fragility (bad businesses stay in business, aren't weeded out), in mixed economies that happens but less so (bail outs, but bankruptcies are more frequent), and in free markets the bad businesses die, and the great businesses can suck up more investment (more capital since bad businesses are gone) to pursue opportunities.

    i've wondered if expressing entrepreneurism (very free market) as an extension of america's frontiersman (mostly scots-irish or borderland agro-pastoralists i believe) culture is a good play. and note it's seen as bad to be a cowboy in european culture.

  2. Calling them socialist, though, makes it sound exotic. It's more like centrally planned by experts -- the technocracy and corporatist movements that we saw the strongest during the New Deal, when everyone assumed that either Corporatism, Communism, or Fascism was the only viable way to go.

    For the anti-fragile ones, I think "free-market" is too loaded in most people's minds to clarify the difference. The entrepreneurial spirit gets closer to what it's about.

  3. Sweden has better human capital than Australia. The people more robust and more attractive. Swedes are also better behaved. If they remained a mono-cultural ethno-state, they would get my vote as 'Country of the Future'.

    I admit Swedes are pretty stiff, and are difficult to befriend, but get a few drinks into them and they loosen up. Charmingly, they do have the mistaken belief that they can rock. After living there for a year I can tell you this is strictly not true. This doesn't stop them though. They love to sing and summer TV is filled with sing-a-long shows.

  4. "it's seen as bad to be a cowboy in european culture."

    A very confused European says - "huh" ?

  5. Swedes seem too well-behaved. They're not as tough on immigration, and feminist martinets have too much power there.

  6. "treating animals with dignity instead of as beasts of burden"

    Pastoralists don't necessarily treat animals with dignity. Middle Easterners of all stripes, including the nomadic types, are known for treating animals very poorly.

  7. "Swedes seem too well-behaved. They're not as tough on immigration, and feminist martinets have too much power there."

    Exhibit A.

  8. daniel, recall george bush was derided as a cowboy.

  9. No, George Bush was derided for being mentally deficient, for having an overly simplistic view of the world ("either you're with us or you're against us"), for his faux folksy persona (yeah, some people could see through his act), etc.

    But hey, way to extrapolate !

  10. In Europe, many people called GWB a "cowboy", with a pejorative meaning

  11. daniel,




    bush wasn't mentally deficient by any serious measure. he scored in the low 1200s on the SATs.

  12. i think your points on using 'socialist' and 'free market' are right.

  13. Well, yes - if by "cowboy" you mean the sort of character that Slim Pickens played in "Dr. Strangelove" - then, yes, that IS seen as a "bad" thing in "Europe" (btw, what Europe are you talking about ? It's a pretty big and diverse place)

    How's about we drop these generalizations and projections of our own prejudices (what "European culture" ?? ) and start using some nuances ?

  14. Socialism actually works pretty well as long as all you have are Scandinavians. Anyone else who tries to implement it runs into trouble.

    It's also worth mentioning that managerial states will destroy other cultures with which they come into contact--very few things can stand against the Red Army. The societies they make may then collapse, of course, leaving other forms of society such as the hunter/gatherer or pastoralist to grow and then ossify into managerial states, but this isn't too crazy in the natural world. Nobody says one type of organism (or society) has to remain on top forever--if anything, cycles are more natural. Ecclesiastes said as much.

    The question isn't which society is best overall, but which strategy is optimal for you and your kids in the next 50 years. In the long run we are all dead anyway.

  15. Rock arising from people with distant echoes of their pastoralist-Celtic origins? I like the theory - it was basically the basis of Led Zepplin's Celticism. But two things. First, the dominant influence that informed rock was African more than anything, and a few Scotch-Irish hillbillies strayed into that territory - even if African-Americans never really took to it. Secondly, how many "Celts" are there, really, in rock? What about Roger Daltry, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Pete Townsend, Robert Plant (whose only Celtic connection is that he grew up near Wales), Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, etc. Seems that there are just as many, if not more, Anglos. Re. the Celtic heritage of Britain, I love Tolkien's essay "English and Welsh", both sharply critical and sympathetic towards the efforts to find remnants of a civilization obliterated from historical memory by Saxonization and Normanization.


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