The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

I got The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity by Carlo M. Cipolla for $20, it’s a small hardcover with 81 pages. Of these 81 pages almost half of them are mostly blank. The book could have easily been condensed to 40 pages, it’s more a long-form blog post than a book. In terms of dollar per letter it’s certainly one of the costliest books I’ve ever acquired, and yet it’s great deal, it’s hilarious, and it overflows with wisdom.

Here are the 5 basics laws of human stupidity:

  1. Always and inevitably, everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  2. The probability that a certain person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
  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.
  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, to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.
  5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

The author calls rule 3 the golden basic rule. This definition of stupidity is brilliant, it enables the author to classify humans into 4 categories based on their stupidity or intelligence and how they benefit the self and others:

  1. Intelligent people whose actions are positive for themselves and others.
  2. Helpless people who sacrifice themselves for others. Their actions don’t benefit themselves but are positive for others. This sacrifice isn’t necessarily born out of altruism, it can also be gullibility.
  3. Bandits who rob others of their time and resources for their own benefits. Like the hopeless they don’t necessarily do it out of malice, sometime it’s out of delusion and naïve indifference.
  4. Stupid people whose actions are a net negative for themselves and others.

Here a diagram the author came up with where I added my own special category: the “dead stupid” that I’ll explain later.

The 4 categories of humans according to the book

The hopeless and the bandits are themselves divided into “smart” and “dumb” categories. If a bandit’s conduct robs others of $50 but gets him $100, he is smart, because in aggregate his actions increased the welfare of the group by $50; even if he gets more than his fair share of the proceeds. Conversely if a bandit’s deeds gets him $50 but cost others $100, he has destroyed $50 for the whole group; this bandit is dumb because he reduces the collective welfare. Hopeless folks are similar: a smart helpless will lose less than others gain from his action, while a dumb helpless will lose more than others gain from his action. The smart bandits and smart helpless fellows are beneficial for collective, while dumb ones are in aggregate a liability for humanity as a whole.

The author point out that bandits and helpless individuals are scattered uniformly in their respective categories. Meanwhile stupid people tend to cluster along the Y axis. He calls this category the “super stupid”, and unfortunately he doesn’t go into details why they tend to cluster this area. I have my own theory about this: Stupid people who persistently cause high loss for themselves tend to have short lives or eventually get ostracized from all groups. They are the “dead stupid” group in my diagram. The super stupid group is more resilient the dead stupid because they hurt themselves less. While the super stupid is potentially very harmful to others he survives and goes on wreaking havoc. This is natural selection at play, the super stupid have a better evolutionary fitness than the dead stupid.

I’ll finish with rule 5: a stupid person is the most dangerous type of person. It’s better to associate with bandits than stupids, because bandits have a sense of self-preservation, which puts a break on how much harm they can inflict on the collective. The bandit needs others in order to survive. The stupids by their very nature don’t have that self-limiting instinct, there’s no limit to the mayhem they can cause. They are the greatest danger we face.