“a system that did not ensure the survival of lucky accidents would lose most of its value”

In his book, Alchemy, Rory Sutherland explains Nassim Taleb’s Anti-Fragile well in terms of free markets (bold added):

It is never-mentioned, slightly embarrassing but nevertheless essential facet of free market capitalism that it does not care about reasons — in fact it will often reward lucky idiots. You can be a certifiable lunatic with an IQ of 80, but if you stumble blindly on an underserved market niche at the right moment, you will be handsomely rewarded. Equally you can have all the MBAs money can buy and, if you launch your genius idea a year too late (or too early), you will fail.

To people who see intelligence as the highest virtue, this all seems hopelessly unmeritocratic, but that’s what makes markets so brilliant; they are happy to reward and fund the necessary, regardless of the quality of reasoning. Perhaps people don’t ‘deserve’ to be rewarded for being lucky, but a system that did not ensure the survival of lucky accidents would lose most of its value. Evolutionary progress, after all, is the product of lucky accidents. Similarly, a system of businesses that kept empty restaurants, say, open through subsidy, simply because there seemed to be some good reasons for their continued existence, would not lead to happy outcomes.

The theory is that free markets are principally about maximising efficiency, but in truth, free markets are not efficient at all. Admiring capitalism for its efficiency is like admiring Bob Dylan for his singing voice: it is to hold a healthy opinion for an entirely ridiculous reason. The market mechanism is loosely efficient, but the idea that efficiency is its main virtue is surely wrong, because competition is highly inefficient. Where I live I can buy groceries from about eight different places; I’m sure it would much more efficient if Waitrose, M&S, Lidl and the rest were merged into one huge ‘Great Grocery Hall of The People’.

The missing metric here is semi-random variation. Truly free markets trade efficiency for market-tested innovation that is heavily reliant on luck. The reason this inefficient process is necessary is because most of the achievements of consumer capitalism were never planned and are explicable only in retrospect, if at all.

 

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