In 1976, UC Berkeley professor and economic historian Carlo M. Cipolla exposed the appalling dangers and range ofthe Stupids, the very worst people because willful, entrenched ignorance causes damage without apparent gain to their interests. Stupids make news by checking their gas tanks with lit matches or unscrewing pipes without turning off the water. These are people who, despite sitting on a cliff, decide to test whether reverse gear works—and have no doubts that vaccines are far more dangerous than getting vaccinated and protecting everyone, even themselves. Yes, some think bleach can fix viruses, even that magical thinking impacts reality: some think a president can decertify state secrets years after leaving office just by thinking it. Some think that your side losing an election proves it must be rigged.
In that sense Stupids are morally worse, and far less sympathetic, than criminals, hustlers or predators, who clearly have something to gain by disruption. Trump is the criminal who enriches himself by hoodwinking his fan base of Stupids,ready to donate and fight “rigged elections” when only filling the hustler’s wallet. That such manipulated Trump donors devastate a workable electoral system without gaining any real-world deliverables (election wins, jobs, pensions, services, or economic growth) speaks exactly to the plight of Stupids.
The second insight adds that Stupids are not only abundant and irrational (both routinely underestimated), but, worst of all, incapable of change. Thus, there are no defenses or specific solutions to stupidity, argued Cipolla. Stupids by definition have closed minds, so benighted they are unaware they are stupid, making them ineducable. Stupids fantasize they are right and no one, and no logic nor evidence, alters fixation. The only way a society can avoid being crushed by the burden of stupidity is for the non-stupids to work even harder and offset the downsides. Cipolla’s laws (edited):
Law 1: Everyone routinely underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
No matter how many Stupids are suspected by the far less stupid, we invariably lowball the total. This problem is compounded by biased assumptions that certain people must not be Stupids because they perform jobs, look normal and survive educational hurdles. Hardly the case, thus
Law 2: The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
Cipolla posits the variable of stupidity remains constant across all populations. Every visible category – gender, race, nationality, education level, income – offers a fixed percentage of stupid people. Stupids span college professors, economists, politicians, truck drivers, ditch diggers or CEOs. Every nation boasts its own Stupids, as if a genetic norm. We cannot know the exact number without violating the first law.
Law 3. 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.
This is Cipolla’s Golden Law of stupidity. Stupids inevitably cause problems for others without serving self-interest. Stupids are especially injurious because reasonable people struggle to understand how others are capable of such unreasonable behavior. Intelligent people understand the logic of a bandit, crook or deceiver for they follow rational measures, however predatory. Criminals act wholly out of self-interest with both means and ends fairly obvious. One may predict criminality, even foresee it and thus defend against obvious malefactions. Police and courts are designed to counter anti-social behavior and with rational punishment: fines, penalties, even loss of freedom. The criminal after all might reform—and the alternative remains unchanged: lawbreaking will generally incur a response.
Stupids do not fit any rational order and Law 3 makes predictable or anticipation impossible. Stupids will harass you for no reason, for no advantage, without any plan or scheme and at the most improbable times and places. You have no rational way of telling if and when and how and Stupids strike or attack. The irrationality of Stupids removes good responses for the more rational victim, open to surprise ambush, in effect at the mercy of Stupids. Thus,
Law 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 dealing with Stupids turns out to be a costly mistake. We underestimate Stupids, putting us at double peril. And so the fifth and final law:
Law 5: Stupids are the most dangerous people because they violate expectations and cannot be reformed.
And its corollary: Stupids are more dangerous than criminals. You can’t fix Stupids. What saves some societies from collapse is the ability of the non-stupids to compensate for the damage caused by Stupids. Successful societies thrive whatever percentage of Stupids by counterbalancing irrational losses and maximizing gains.
First there is the intelligent person, whose actions benefit both himself and others. Then there is the criminal, who benefits himself at the expense of others. The non-stupid are a flawed and inconsistent bunch. Sometimes we act intelligently, sometimes we are selfish bandits, sometimes we act helplessly and are taken advantage of by others, and sometimes we’re a bit of both. In comparison, Stupids are paragons of consistency, acting at all times with unyielding idiocy: consistent stupidity is the only consistent thing about Stupids and this is why they are so dangerous.