Opinion: You cannot fix stupid

But we can help ourselves by understanding its pathology.

  • By Joe Mehrkens
  • Tuesday, June 14, 2022 11:30am
  • Opinion

By Joe Mehrkens

If you are wondering why we are slipping into an abyss of chaos, conflict and unsubstantiated realities, it may because we cannot fix stupid. Dr. Carlo M. Cipolla’s 1976 book on humanity’s greatest threat — stupidity — gives us some insights about the problem. He contends that stupid people exist across all cultures and societies, and they have very consistent traits. The most common trait is that they engage in irrational behavior causing grief to others without benefiting themselves. This can become catastrophic to the three non-stupid types of people as defined by Cipolla. The three non-stupid types are (1) intelligent people whose actions benefit themselves and others, (2) bandits who benefit themselves at the expense of others and (3) the helpless who through their own actions/inactions allow themselves to be exploited.

Cipolla’s (paraphrased) five laws of stupidity are:

— Inevitably everyone will underestimate the number of stupid people.

— Identifying stupidity is independent of other socio-economic characteristics.

— Stupid people consistently cause losses to others without gaining benefits for themselves.

— Non-stupid people will always underestimate the power of stupidity.

— Stupid people are the most dangerous, and more dangerous than bandits.

The first three laws relate to the degree of stupidity that co-exist with us. According to Cipolla, no matter how carefully we observe we will invariably underestimate the total. This underestimate is compounded with a bad assumption that successful and stupid people are mutually exclusive. We entrap ourselves when we think that stupid people cannot hold good jobs, be highly educated, or be skillfully devious. The good news is that gender, race, nationality, education, or income do not further define/identify stupidity. So much for persistent and unfair stereotypes.

Cipolla’s fourth and fifth laws describe how we all co-exist and can fall to the destructive powers of stupidity. Under Cipolla’s theory functional societies will fall victim to stupid people when too many intelligent people become the helpless or bandits. When this tipping point occurs, the universal characteristics of stupid people allows them to prevail. Stupidity is relentless and is immune to self-correction. If left unchecked it expands grief and leads to a new norm of obstruction, gridlock, and violent conflict. Stupidity and the bandits can win by sheer momentum. Ironically their “new norm” results in a predictable doomed future. Regimes with little common purpose or synergy among its population are the ultimate lose-lose propositions. Think of authoritarian rulers like Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Pinochet, Idi Amin, Gaddafi, Hussein, Putin, Duterte and our wannabe Trump.

Lastly, Cipolla provides a warning on how the masses in democratic republics, in short order, fall prey to authoritarianism. I agree there is no cure for the stupid, but we can help ourselves by understanding its pathology. We must constantly minimize an environment where intelligent people want to devolve into the helpless and/or bandits. That means more equitable education and economic opportunities. It also means race-neutral law enforcement. And most importantly, we must closely monitor the direct effects of stupidity and inflict a whack-a-mole response — to enforce the full force and extent of our laws to protect the nation under our Constitution. Does Jan. 6 come to mind?

• Joe Mehrkens is a retired economist who resides in Petersburg and Juneau. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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