– by Bruce Mason –
If anyone survives the current human-caused mass extinction – the sixth since the dawn of time – they’ll look back on our epoch as the Golden Age of Stupidity. There is no better way, or word, to describe a species that is greedily stretching the resources of planet Earth beyond what it can sustainably provide, while wilfully destroying life upon it.
Since stupidity defines us, let’s define it. Or re-define it. So often, we use the word despairingly when facing the ubiquity of stupidity, baffling political realities, obscene inequity, perpetual war and ecocide. So let’s come to a common and wise understanding of its meaning in order to comprehend and reverse the feces-storm that is the 21st Century.
Here’s a start: the “Golden Law of Stupidity”. This shall define a stupid person as one who causes problems for others without any clear benefit to themselves. Simple.
Also politically correct. This definition has nothing to do with gender, race, or nationality. There are stupid Presidents, Prime Ministers, Premiers, MPs and MLAs. They’re among those who gather at Davos, the United Nations, and your local mall. On Facebook, Twitter and TV. There are stupid people in every nation and neighbourhood, and they are humanity’s greatest existential threat.
That was the warning and conclusion offered by Professor Carlo M. Cipolla, an economic historian at the University of California, Berkeley, in a 1976 essay, The
Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. The Italian-born Cipolla was no dummy; he studied at the Sorbonne and London School of Economics, taught and researched internationally, and formulated the first economic model of stupidity.
He divided those of us who must co-exist with stupidity into three groups. First: intelligent people whose actions are reciprocal and benefit both themselves and others. Second: bandits who benefit themselves at others’ expense. Lastly: the helpless who contribute to society and whose actions enrich others at their own expense, but who are taken advantage of (especially by bandits).
The non-stupid are a flawed and inconsistent bunch. Sometimes acting intelligently, sometimes selfishly or helplessly. We are a mixed bag.
Bandits, such as sociopaths, psychopaths, the all-too-familiar non-pathological “jerks” and amoralists, pursue their self-interest to the detriment of the common good. They act with full knowledge of the negative consequences of their actions on society, but neither identify with, nor care about those consequences. For example, our so-called “global elites”, who inflict losses upon others while reaping benefits for themselves and the GNP of our endangered world. Stupid people drag down and impoverish society as a whole.
As a result, Cipolla argued, a stupid person is the worst, explaining:
“Essentially stupid people are dangerous and damaging because reasonable people find it difficult to imagine and understand unreasonable behaviour. An intelligent person may understand a bandit’s logic. Their actions follow a pattern of rationality: nasty rationality, if you like, but still rationality.
“The bandit wants a plus on his account, but isn’t intelligent enough to obtain it without causing a minus to appear on others. All this is bad, but it is rational and predictable. You can foresee a bandit’s actions, his nasty manoeuvres and ugly aspirations, and often can build up your defences,” he added.
However, the non-stupid constantly underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. This problem is compounded by assumptions that certain people are intelligent because of superficial factors such as job, education, and celebrity. They aren’t. Social status does not preclude stupidity.
Forgetting this is costly and we do so at our peril.
Cipolla insists we can do nothing about the stupid. They are abundant, irrational, and subvert society’s overall well-being. A society can avoid being crushed only if the non-stupid work even harder to offset the losses.
The difference between societies that collapse under the weight of their stupid citizens, and those that transcend them, is the relative number of the non-stupid. A high proportion of people acting intelligently brings benefit for them and for their fellow citizens.
Declining societies have the same percentage of stupid people as successful ones. But they also have a high percentage of helpless people and, Cipolla writes, “an alarming proliferation of the bandits with overtones of stupidity.
“Such change in the composition of the non-stupid population inevitably strengthens the destructive power of the stupid fraction and makes decline a certainty,” Cipolla concludes, “and the country goes to Hell.”
The question now is whether our short-term survival and future will be peaceful, equitable and deliberate, or an ugly haphazard collapse into states of fractured barbarity. It is time for intelligent people to redouble efforts to offset the losses incurred by the stupid, and demand accountability for common good. To do anything else would be, in a word, stupid.
The five fundamental laws of stupidity
- Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
- The probability that a certain person (will) be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
- A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain, and even possibly incurring losses.
- 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 with or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.
- A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.
lllustration © Maxim Popov, Dreamstime