Korea – The Antifragile Kingdom

by Matthew Jackson on 10 July, 2017

in Historical, Interviews and features, Society


Editor’s note: every now and then Matthew Jackson submits a cracking article from out of nowhere. Here’s one such article which, if I may paraphrase, wonders whether maybe han is healthy. I hope it’s not too long before the next one!

The author and philosopher Nicholas Nassim Taleb (of ‘Black Swan’ fame) developed a concept called ‘Antifragility’.

The theory is a counter-intuitive one: namely, that a regular series of negative events (“stressors”) keeps a system healthy so that it can resist larger, more catastrophic shocks when these arise.

Conversely, a system that avoids these stressors becomes increasingly vulnerable to the larger shock when it inevitably occurs.

The human body requires the stress of walking, running and other movements in order to be resilient to disease and to prepare for moments when physical fitness is critical for survival, such as running away from a saber-toothed tiger, or for the bus on the way to a critical job interview. Years of avoiding exercise will leave the body less able to cope in such situations, and more likely to succumb to a heart-attack.

Taleb developed the Antifragile concept in response to what he perceives as the naïve rationalism of governments and leaders who intervene and regulate to eliminate problems that are better left alone, thus causing even greater problems in the long-run – for example, the years of loose monetary policy that contributed to the borrowing boom and subsequent financial crisis.

On a micro level, you could see it as a response to shielding school-children from failure, leading to over-sensitive employees incapable of taking constructive criticism. Or the widespread use of medicine to overcome routine issues such as sadness and ennui.

This provides an interesting counter-poise to the oft-repeated criticism that Korean education should be made easier for students – which ignores the possibility that that ‘exam hell’ once it is over, leaves a person hardier and better equipped to deal with the vagaries of fortune.

On a broader note, does this Antifragile theory work as a way of explaining the resilience of Korea through the ages, and also, does it give us an insight into its future?

You don’t have to look too far to see the ‘stressors’ in Korean history. For a start, the country has endured more than 500 invasions by foreign powers.

One wonders why, given the military technology at its disposal, such as naval artillery and rocket-launchers, Korea never thought to do what Rome, Britain and other imperialist powers did, and carry out a little invading of its own. This could have been justified as an attempt to ensure stability and peace (=avoiding stressors). But as we know, Korea has never once invaded another country, preferring apparently to endure rather than inflict depredations on others.

There is a curious legend about the birth of Tangun, the mythical founder of Korea. According to the story, the heavens condemned a tiger and a she-bear to confinement in a cave with nothing to eat but bitter herbs for 30 days.

Of the two, the bear alone was able to endure the suffering for the full term, and thus became the mother of Tangun, who went on to found the Korean nation.

One of the many odd things about this fable is that it hinges on the ability to suffer patiently, rather than overcome an opponent by force or guile. This theme has been borne out by the history of Korea – acting as a sufferer but not an aggressor.

You can also see this philosophy reflected in the Korean attitude towards nature. Korean gardens are notable for preserving the fractal and rugged appearance of their surroundings. Hills are not levelled; and waterfalls rather than fountains are used, in deference to the natural tendency of water to travel downwards.

The story of mankind has been in part an attempt to master nature and impose a man-made logic, with climate change being the latest unexpected consequence. It conforms to the fragile paradigm – present day comfort purchased at the expense of a large future negative pay-off.

Another theme in Taleb’s book is the relationship between the individual and collective. What is catastrophic to an individual is not catastrophic to the group, and can hence serve as a stressor contributing to the resilience of others.

For a group of people to be Anti-fragile, in other words, it could be necessary for individuals in the group to make sacrifices, sometime even their lives.

This, to take a negative example, is what makes terrorist groups such an adversary far more difficult to deal with than a group of individuals whose individual lives are more precious than anything.

But the flip-side of this is equally powerful. When a society voluntarily places the good of future generations above the short-term convenience of individuals, great disasters such as climate change can be averted. In the short-term countries can achieve miracles with very little to work with, as we saw in the economic growth of South Korea following the Korean War.

There is a Korean expression ‘고생해라’ for which the English equivalent might be ‘Have a nice day’ – but which literally translates as ‘Endure the day’.

The practical aim of the AntiFragile concept is to furnish us with a method of dealing with an uncertain future. Korea provides us with a country-size example of what this looks like. Rather than persisting in a somewhat condescending view of the country, we might do well to learn some lessons from its achievements, which no rational-minded economist would have predicted fifty years ago.

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