May 30, 2024

Cost of Stupidity

Cheers to the Doctrine Man for re-surfacing Italian economist Carlo Cipolla’s 1976 essay, The Basic Laws of Stupidity via ClearanceJobs, from which I quote:

In his essay – which was initially intended for a very small group of close colleagues – Cipolla presented his laws of stupidity. We all know stupid people exist, he explained, but codifying human stupidity helps us to evolve beyond our dangerous underestimation of its impact on society, as well as the sheer number of stupid people in existence. They’re everywhere. And the havoc they bring cannot be overstated.

Law #1: Always and inevitably, everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.

Cipolla recognized that it’s human nature to downplay the severity of a problem. He was so convinced that we were naïve to the challenge we face from stupidity that he suggested that “any numerical assumption [of the number of stupid among us] would turn out to be an underestimate.” It’s no accident that this is the first law.

Law #2: The probability that a certain person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.

Some people have red hair. Some people have blue eyes. Some people are stupid. It is what it is. As Cipolla asserted, “the fact remains that [you] will always have to deal with the same percentage of stupid people” everywhere you go. Or, like my father used to say, “Just assume that half of everyone you meet is below average.”

Law #3: A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

Stupid people will inevitably make decisions that confuse us – their reasoning simply escapes us. It’s not that they are ill-willed, it’s just that they are incapable of seeing the effects of their actions in a broader context. To this end, Cipolla noted, “There are people who, by their illogic actions, not only cause harm to other people, but also to themselves.”

Law #4: Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals.

Cipolla expanded on this law: “In particular, non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places, and under any circumstances, to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.” Our own naivete makes us vulnerable: “Stupid people are deadly dangerous because reasonable people find it difficult to imagine and understand stupid behavior.” Don’t try to make sense of them, just avoid them.

Law #5: A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

Cipolla added a corollary to the fifth law: “A stupid person is more dangerous than a [bandit].” Intelligent people, regardless of intent, are predictable. Stupid people are not. That lack of predictability makes stupid people incredibly dangerous. Don’t swim with the sharks if you don’t want to be an appetizer on the dinner menu.

Stupid people are all around us. We see it every time we leave the safety of our homes. The rub is that many stupid people are just smart enough to trick themselves into thinking that they are not stupid and therefore not part of the problem. If only this were so. And if only they wouldn’t vote and, worst of all, run for – and win – public office.


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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