The Malta Independent 17 August 2022, Wednesday

The basic laws of human stupidity

Kevin Cassar Sunday, 26 June 2022, 10:56 Last update: about 3 months ago

Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid people. That is the first of five fundamental laws of human stupidity drawn up in 1976 by an Italian, aptly named Carlo Cipolla, Professor of Economics at UC Berkeley, California.

Cipolla’s short paper was meant for circulation amongst a small tightly knit group of academics but became one of the most famous publications. Cipolla’s observations cast a new light on an area of human behaviour that is poorly researched and mostly ignored in academia - to the detriment of all. Cipolla’s incisive laws struck a chord. Simple and direct, they opened the eyes of the world to its perennial problem.


His first law comes across as horridly ungenerous. But reflection reveals how true it is. Repeatedly, people once judged rational and intelligent turn out to be unashamedly stupid. In our daily lives we are constantly harassed and endangered by the behaviour of stupid people who suddenly and unexpectedly appear in the most inconvenient places at the most improbable moments.  Witness the proliferation of videos showing heavy duty vehicles overtaking dangerously in the blindest of spots. Or the developer working his digger on the foundations of a building full of residents. Or the untethered scaffolding in a busy Balluta road. Or Putin.

If you thought stupidity only occurs amongst HGV drivers, developers or dictators, think again. Cipolla’s second law states that “the probability that somebody is stupid is independent of any other characteristic - gender, race, educational level, profession, income”. Cipolla alluded to studies which showed that the proportion of stupid people was the same amongst the janitors, students, lecturers and professors at Universities. That proportion is the same even amongst Nobel prize laureates, Cipolla claimed.

The reason is that Cipolla’s definition differs from generally held views of stupidity. He defined stupidity in his third law.  A stupid person causes losses to others while deriving no gain and even incurring losses to himself.  He labelled this the Golden law of stupidity. The stupid person not only harms others but often also harms himself.

Cipolla classified human beings into four groups - stupid, intelligent, helpless and bandits - based on the benefit or harm they cause others and themselves.  The intelligent person is one who through his actions causes benefit to others but also to himself. The intelligent person makes the world a better place, and his own situation better too. The heroes, the naive or as Cipolla called them, the helpless are the ones who without considering the risks or consequences to themselves produce benefit for others. The heroes often incur harm or losses to improve the lives of others.

And the final category are the bandits.  These are the crooks, the thieves, the abusers who will steal, rob and cheat others to benefit themselves. 

Cipolla further divided the bandits into two groups.  The first he termed the perfect bandits. These are the ones whose actions yield profits to themselves much bigger than the harm they cause others. Most bandits, sadly fall into a different category - the stupid bandits.  These gain little for themselves but cause huge damage to others. Bandits will always cause harm but stupid bandits cause far greater damage to their societies.

The problem is that non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid people - Cipolla’s fourth law. Following from it is the fifth and last law - a stupid person is the most dangerous type of person, even more dangerous than the bandit.  The bandit is predictable.  He will always follow incentives, unethical incentives, but incentives just the same.  The stupid people are unpredictable as they lack any particular motivation. As Schiller wrote “against stupidity the very Gods fight in vain”.

But if stupid people occur in equal frequencies in all countries, why do some descend into chaos while others prosper? Both are plagued by the same proportion of stupid people. But the countries that perform poorly have a far higher proportion of bandits amongst the non-stupid group. They outnumber the heroes and the intelligent and usurp power causing overall losses to their societies. In successful countries the intelligent and the heroes constitute a significantly higher fraction of the population producing gains for themselves and for others - progress is a certainty.  In the countries heading downhill “one notices among those in power an alarming proliferation of the bandits with overtones of stupidity”.  Decline becomes a certainty and as Cipolla put it “the country goes to Hell”.

That sentiment feels familiar. Grey listing, the collapse of Air Malta, the rape of the countryside, the destruction of our environment, the rising national debt, the protection of crooks, the ever increasing costs of the corrupt Vitals and Electrogas deals, the dismal collapse of the promised American University of Malta, the millions overspent at the Malta tourism authority fuelled by lavish hotel stays for senior members of staff, down to the abusive uncontrolled occupation of Comino. Of course Malta has its fair share of stupid people - like those who celebrated Labour’s victory on the steps of Pilatus bank or the thousands who still voted for Zammit Lewis after he sucked up to a suspected murderer and then called them stupid. Or those voting for Konrad Mizzi when his wife made thousands of euro off the taxpayer and he set up his secret offshore companies to rob them of their wealth.

But it’s not the stupid who are responsible for the damage done to the country. It’s the bandits. Labour constructed a system that manufactures new bandits at every turn, recruiting more and more to that category. Through thousands of illegal direct contracts, hundreds of political appointments as persons of trust, ODZ permits and thousands of undeserved political favours, ever more of the population join the bandits. They are the egoistic free-riders who appropriate larger and larger undeserved shares of the nation’s resources for personal benefit, depriving the rest of that wealth. Bandits get promoted, heroes get blown up. That is the secret of Labour’s success - as long as there are more bandits than heroes, victory is certain.

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