Cipolla’s Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

Scott Deshefy


TwitterFacebookCopy LinkPrintEmail

“The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world it leaves its children.” So wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor speaking out against Nazi atrocities. Executed in Flossenbürg concentration camp days before liberation, Bonhoeffer found “readiness for responsibility” springboards for action. In “Letters from Prison,” he wrote how stupidity, not malice was the root of his country’s problems. Evil and malice, he surmised, can be exposed and prevented. Against asininity we’re defenseless. Dolts self-satisfy by defying truth. So, facts that contradict a stupid person’s prejudgment are simply not believed or, when irrefutable, are pushed aside as inconsequential. Because well-trained, agile minds can be foolish and those with limited knowledge wise, stupidity is more a moral defect than cerebral, usually afflicting solitary people less than groups. More sociological than psychological, therefore, we allow ourselves to become stupid through tribal connections which enable political and religious powers to inflate. Cult figures and populists, parasitically, feed off those losses of moral and rational autonomy, infecting the gullible. Their acolytes and minions become tools, easily incited, blinded to iniquity by slogans and catch phrases. No amount of instruction, only liberation, can exorcize their demons.

In Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, economic historian Carlo Cipolla, professor at Pavia and Berkley universities, presented 5 axioms on how stupid people attain power and endanger us. Inevitably, Cipolla inferred, numbers of stupid individuals are underestimated, enabling them to emerge at inopportune times, consistently thwarting important endeavors. That’s because probabilities of someone being naive are independent of characteristics such as college degrees, values, financial success, or social status. Cipolla saw stupidity as losses to other individuals or groups, often widespread, from which the naive not only derive zero benefits, but risk damage to themselves. By comparing costs and benefits among types, Cipolla divided society into four interacting quadrants of people: helpless, intelligent, bandits and stupid. The latter, he argued, were most dangerous because bandits, while benefiting from the losses they cause, can listen to reason. Even today’s industrialists, less altruistically than selfishly, are beginning to lower carbon emissions. But stupid people’s actions aren’t mitigated by logic. They’re too improbable for rational people to predict, understand or prevent. Thinking stupidity can be remediated, underestimates its harm, enabling accumulated power.

November 5, 2020, in the White House Briefing Room, as states continued finalizing vote counts, Donald Trump was already spewing false narratives that illegal ballots cost him reelection. As the Big Lie went public, before major television networks stopped airing it, CEOs of leading media, financial and retail conglomerates prepped to respond to Trump’s obvious attempt to overturn the election. Democracies are usually overthrown internally by declaring false emergencies to smokescreen coup d’états. Business leaders, often financial backers of insurrections elsewhere in the hemisphere, wanted to thwart Trump’s attempt at home. In solidarity, they gave their imprimatur to Joe Biden’s presidency, continuing an evolution of “woke capitalism” that rebuffed rollbacks of CO2 limits and methane-regulation repeals by his predecessor. Many companies have similarly cut ties with the NRA, stopped selling guns and ammo, lobbied against deforestation in Brazil and, to support COP26, set their own ambitious climate goals.

The January 6th storming of the Capitol to decertify Biden’s victory proved subversion of truth to instigate violence and undermine democracy is becoming normalized in America. With his inner circle subpoenaed, some of whom pressed DOD and other agencies to overturn or falsify election results, Trump’s role and exhibited fascist psychoses preventing peaceful transition of power should become clear. After months of rhetorical groundwork as proximate-cause, seeing January 6th as anything but an attempted coup and insurrection exhibits the kind of dangerous and puerile stupidity about which Bonhoeffer and Cipolla forewarned. Extremist insistence we believe otherwise, ignoring our eyes and ears and Congress’ investigatory panel, is absolute gaslighting.

Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.