Are There Basic Laws of Human Stupidity?

A fascinating new book took 43 years to receive its first widespread publication in its original language. Why should you care? Because the belated arrival confirms the machine of the world doesn’t operate well. A logical, predictable planet under wise management is the one we want.

Carlo Cipolla offers us a sort-of-comic essay called The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.

Is it playful? Yes.

Is it serious? Yes.

Is it enlightening? Yes, again.

Moreover, at 74 pages, the slender volume is worth the slim slice of time and money to find out yourself. No extra calories, either, so discovering the five rules won’t blow your diet.

Here are the laws our friendly adviser asserts, with a few edits and comments to ease your understanding:

  1. Always and inevitably, everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  2. The probability that a person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person. The author Carlo Cipolla means you will find the same percentage of the stupid everywhere. They inhabit all jobs in all societies, all races and genders, and all education levels.
  3. The Golden Basic Law. A stupid person is (someone) who causes (harm) to another person or group while himself (gaining nothing) or even possibly (hurting himself).
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people infallibly turns out to be a costly mistake.
  5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person. A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit.

Cipolla’s description of stupidity concerns the ill-timed actions of the souls he describes, a kind of bizarre giftedness for catastrophe creation. They lack self-awareness of their talent for messing things up for those who don’t recognize their toxicity and flee.

These creatures use their strange, malign, unintended capacity to cause misspent energy, squandered time, spoiled appetites, perplexity, unhappiness, physical distress, and lost wages and property. Misery floats in their wake. This unknowing band carries habits similar to people Joseph Epstein refers to as Chaos Merchants.

Here is a personal example. My wife was driving to an unfamiliar Chinese restaurant in Philadelphia around 1974. We were attending a professional conference. Several bright attendees we just met were with us.

One bloke insisted he knew the way. He exuded absolute confidence. We were moving at speed when he insisted the time demanded we make a left turn. A moment later, we were facing four lanes of oncoming traffic.

This well-educated guy embodied stupidity.

Think about the people you’ve dated, married, befriended, and worked beside or for. I’m sure many were conventionally bright. I imagine you believed your continuing acquaintances harmless.

Cipolla would suggest some were stupid (by his definition), and the world is more dysfunctional for their being here. He might have entitled his volume The Inconvenient, Unpredictable Doings of Preposterous People.

The book attempts to differentiate its target from the helpless, the corrupt (bandits), and the intelligent. The author also tells us how some in this crowd arrived in positions of power.

Possible explanations include being born into a higher class or caste, entry to an advantaged and protected religious order where male authorities have lacked oversite, and elections. His opinion of the political misguidedness of his targets echoes the words of H.L Menken:

On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

What can you do about the danger? Since many of us defend against senselessness by reasoning with others or maneuvering around them, the author instead tries to persuade us that success and safety require us to keep a distance.

He quotes the German poet Friedrich Schiller, who wrote, “Against stupidity, even the gods fight in vain.”

I would add this. Most people of reasonable intelligence make mistakes in managing the totality of humanity. First, we think of ourselves as more rational than we are. Second, we judge others and predict their actions without adequate skill whenever we base our expectations on sober consistency and astute instincts they do not possess.

Our tendency to ignore so much of what we learn also comes into play. And they, the dangerous ones, often appear innocent and well-meaning. We want to give people second chances and desire the same from them.

Nor do we wish to live in fear of disasters brought by members of our species who, we believe, don’t roam the earth with distinctive hats announcing their presence. (Oops, we could be wrong).

As the 4th Basic Law reminds us:

Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people infallibly turns out to be a costly mistake.

There are reasons to doubt the author’s contentions. He was an economist, not a psychologist, and doesn’t present data to support his ideas. Yet, in my judgment, he is devilishly wise and has hit upon something of importance.

Here is my recommendation. You might get a laugh and a new perspective on the human condition if you take on his writing. At worst, you’ll be out a few dollars and a miniature amount of time you won’t get back.

Read the book. With luck, you’ll come away with a little wisdom and a smile.

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The second photo comes from a Tax March, San Francisco, CA, on April 15, 2017. The final image is called Naughty Carrot Wearing a Dunce Cap, November 13, 2019. In order, the creators of these two visuals are Punk Toad and Schmidti333. The source was Wikimedia.com/

4 thoughts on “Are There Basic Laws of Human Stupidity?

  1. I totally agree with #4 that “Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you do, Rosaliene. If Schiller is right about the frustration of even the gods, all we poor humans can do is to run for our lives whenever we see someone who is “stupid!”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I find it scary that enough stupid people fell for a conman’s antics and elected him to the White House. I find it even stupider that they continue to believe “the big lie” and incited an insurrection. Stupidity led to all of us almost losing our democracy, so stupidity is definitely dangerous.

    Like

  3. It is interesting to me that Cipolla wrote his book over 40 years ago, long before “the other guy” was much more than a carnival barker. Yet, if we remember back to the late 40s and early 50s, when some conspiracy promoters like Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy were finding so-called Communists in the State Department, we went through a version of the present moment. George Orwell in his “1984” and other writings saw the potential explostion of this very clearly. And then, as now, few people in McCarthy’s party uttered a bad word against him, until his alcoholism and recklessness increased. It was also a time when people could be shamed. Unfortunately, we now live in a more shameless moment. What we can do now, as you clearly have done, is recognize that democracy must always be safeguarded and do our part to make it so. Thanks, Nancy.

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