A new article by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Gregory F. Treverton appearing in the January/February 2015 issue of Foreign Affairs reminds us that things are not always what they seem, especially when it comes to human nature, culture and group dynamics. Taleb and Treverton argue that despite appearances, strong, centralized governments with minimal political variability like those of Saudi Arabia and Egypt are actually more “fragile” than decentralized, politically diverse countries such as Italy or Lebanon.

Taleb – Five sources of national fragility

According to the authors, fragility for nations derives from five main sources: a centralized government, a “one trick pony” economy, high debt and leverage, a lack of political diversity, and lack of experience with dealing with shocks in the past.

Taleb and Treverton highlight that “Applying these criteria, the world map looks a lot different. Disorderly regimes come out as safer bets than commonly thought—and seemingly placid states turn out to be ticking time bombs.”

Nassim Taleb On The Calm Before the Storm

Taleb – The problem with centralization

A concentrated, centralized decision-making system actually leads to fragility. It would seem at first blush that centralization would make governments more efficient and therefore more stable/less fragile. However, in the conundrum of human culture, it turns out that (aside from the military) centralization in government adds to fragility.

Taleb and Treverton offer an explanation for this phenomenon. “Although centralization reduces deviations from the norm, making things appear to run more smoothly, it magnifies the consequences of those deviations that do occur. It concentrates turmoil in fewer but more severe episodes, which are disproportionately more harmful than cumulative small variations…When a state is decentralized, the variations are smoother, since municipalities distribute decision-making power and allow for a plurality of political views.”

The paradoxical strength of politically diverse countries

Of interest, it turns out that political diversity or political variability makes countries more robust and less fragile. Contrary to conventional wisdom, truly stable, politically diverse countries tend to undergo moderate political changes, frequently switching governments and going back and forth in their political orientations.

The authors note: “By responding to pressures in the body politic, these changes promote stability, provided their magnitude is not too large—more like the gap between the Labour Party and the Conservative Party in the contemporary United Kingdom than that between the Jacobins and the royalists in revolutionary France. Moderate political variability also removes particular leaders from power, thus reducing cronyism in politics.”