The First Basic Law
ALWAYS AND INEVITABLY EVERYONE UNDERESTIMATES
THE NUMBER OF STUPID INDIVIDUALS IN CIRCULATION.
The First Basic Law of Human Stupidity asserts without ambiguity that
Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
At first, the statement sounds trivial, vague and horribly ungenerous. Closer scrutiny will, however, reveal its realistic veracity. No matter how high are one’s estimates of human stupidity, one is repeatedly and recurrently startled by the fact that
a) people whom one had once judged rational and intelligent turn out to be unashamedly stupid;
b) day after day, with unceasing monotony, one is harassed in one’s activities by stupid individuals who appear suddenly and unexpectedly in the most inconvenient places and at the most improbable moments.
The First Basic Law prevents me from attributing a specific numerical value to the fraction of stupid people within the total population: any numerical estimate would turn out to be an underestimate. Thus in the following pages I will denote the fraction of stupid people within a population by the symbol σ.
The Second Basic Law
THE PROBABILITY THAT A CERTAIN PERSON BE STUPID
IS INDEPENDENT OF ANY OTHER CHARACTERISTIC OF THAT PERSON.
Cultural trends now fashionable in the West favor an egalitarian approach to life. People like to think of human beings as the output of a perfectly engineered mass production machine. Geneticists and sociologists especially go out of their way to prove, with an impressive apparatus of scientific data and formulations, that all men are naturally equal and if some are more equal than the others, this is attributable to nurture and not to nature.
I take exception to this general view. It is my firm conviction, supported by years of observation and experimentation, that men are not equal, that some are stupid and others are not and that the difference is determined by nature and not by cultural forces or factors. One is stupid in the same way one is red-haired; one belongs to the stupid set as one belongs to a blood group. A stupid man is born a stupid man by an act of Providence.
Although convinced that fraction σ of human beings are stupid and that they are so because of genetic traits, I am not a reactionary trying to reintroduce surreptitiously class or race discrimination. I firmly believe that stupidity is an indiscriminate privilege of all human groups and is uniformly distributed according to a constant proportion. This fact is scientifically expressed by the Second Basic Law, which states that
The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
In this regard, Nature seems indeed to have outdone herself. It is well known that Nature manages, rather mysteriously, to keep constant the relative frequency of certain natural phenomena. For instance, whether men proliferate at the North Pole or at the equator, whether the matching couples are developed or developing, whether they are black or white, the female to male ratio among the newly born is a constant, with a very slight prevalence of males. We do not know how Nature achieves this remarkable result but we know that in order to achieve it Nature must operate with large numbers. The most remarkable fact about the frequency of stupidity is that Nature succeeds in making this frequency equal to the probability σ quite independently from the size of the group. Thus one finds the same percentage of stupid people whether one is considering very large groups or dealing with very small ones. No other set of observable phenomena offers such striking proof of the powers of Nature.
The evidence that education has nothing to do with the probability σ was provided by experiments carried out in a large number of universities all over the world. One may distinguish the composite population that constitutes a university in five major groups, namely the blue-collar workers, the white-collar employees, the students, the administrators, and the professors.
Whenever I analyzed the blue-collar workers I found that the fraction σ of them were stupid. As σ’s value was higher than I expected (First Law), paying my tribute to fashion I thought at first that segregation, poverty, lack of education were to be blamed. But moving up the social ladder I found that the same ratio was prevalent among the white-collar employees and among the students. More impressive still were the results among the professors. Whether I considered a large university or a small college, a famous institution or an obscure one, I found that the same fraction σ of the professors were stupid. So bewildered was I by the results that I made a special point to extend my research to a specially selected group, to a real elite, the Nobel laureates. The result confirmed Nature’s supreme powers: σ fraction of the Nobel laureates were stupid.
This idea was hard to accept and digest, but too many experimental results proved its fundamental veracity. The Second Basic Law is an iron law, and it does not admit exceptions. The Women’s Liberation Movement will support the Second Basic Law; as it shows that stupid individuals are proportionally as numerous among men as among women. The “developing” of the “Third World” will probably take solace in the Second Basic Law as they can find in it the proof that after all the developed are not so developed. Whether the Second Basic Law is liked or not, however, its implications are frightening: the law implies that whether you move in distinguished circles or you take refuge among the headhunters of Polynesia, whether you lock yourself in a monastery or decide to spend the rest of your life in the company of beautiful and lascivious women, you always have to face the same percentage of stupid people—which percentage (in accordance with the First Law) will always surpass your expectations.
A Technical Interlude
At this point it is imperative to elucidate the concept of human stupidity and to define the dramatis personae.
Individuals are characterized by different degrees of propensity to socialize. There are individuals for whom any contact with other individuals is a painful necessity. They literally have to put up with people, and people have to put up with them. At the other extreme of the spectrum there are individuals who absolutely cannot live by themselves and are even ready to spend time in the company of people whom they do not really like rather than be alone. Between these two extremes, there is an extreme variety of conditions, although by far the greatest majority of people are closer to the type who cannot face loneliness than to the type who has no taste for human intercourse. Aristotle recognized this fact when he wrote that “Man is a social animal” and the validity of his statement is demonstrated by the fact that we move in social groups, that there are more married people than bachelors and spinsters, that so much wealth and time are wasted in fatiguing and boring cocktail parties, and that the word loneliness normally carries a negative connotation.
Whether one belongs to the hermit or to the socialite type, one deals with people, although with different intensity. Even the hermits occasionally meet people. Moreover, one affects human beings also by avoiding them. What I could have done for an individual or a group but did not do is an opportunity-cost (i.e., a lost gain or loss) for that particular person or group. The moral of the story is that each one of us has a current balance with everybody else. From each action or inaction we derive a gain or a loss and at the same time we cause a gain or a loss to someone else. Gains and losses can be conveniently charted on a graph, and figure 1 shows the basic graph to be used for the purpose.
The graph refers to an individual—let us say Tom. The X-axis measures the gain that Tom derives from his actions. On the Y-axis the graph shows the gain that another person or group of persons derives from Tom’s actions. Gains can be positive, nil, or negative—a negative gain being actually a loss. The X-axis measures Tom’s positive gains to the right of point O and Tom’s losses to the left of point O. The Y-axis measures the gains and losses of the person or persons with whom Tom deals respectively above and below point O.
To make all this clear, let us use a hypothetical example and refer to figure 1. Tom takes an action that affects Dick. If Tom derives from the action a gain and Dick suffers from the same action a loss, the action will be recorded on the graph with a dot that will appear in the graph somewhere in area B.
Gains and losses may be recorded on the X- and Y-axis in dollars or francs, if one wants, but one has to include also psychological and emotional rewards and satisfactions as well as psychological and emotional stresses. These are intangibles and they are very difficult to measure according to objective standards. Cost-benefit analysis can help to solve the problem, although not completely, but I do not want to bother the reader with such technicalities: a margin of imprecision is bound to affect the measurement but it does not affect the essence of the argument. One point though must be made clear. When considering Tom’s action one makes use of Tom’s values but one has to rely on Dick’s values and not on Tom’s values to determine Dick’s gains (whether positive or negative). All too often this rule of fairness is forgotten, and many troubles originate from failure to apply this essentially urbane point of view. Let me resort once again to a banal example. Tom hits Dick on Dick’s head and he derives satisfaction from his action. He may pretend that Dick was delighted to be hit on the head. Dick, however, may not share Tom’s view. In fact he may regard the blow to his head as an unpleasant event. Whether the blow to Dick’s head was a gain or a loss to Dick is up to Dick to decide and not to Tom.
THE THIRD (AND GOLDEN) BASIC LAW
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.
The Third Basic Law assumes, although it does not state it explicitly, that human beings fall into four basic categories: the helpless, the intelligent, the bandit, and the stupid. It will be easily recognized by the perspicacious reader that these four categories correspond to the four areas H, I, B, S of the basic graph (see figure 1).
If Tom takes an action and suffers a loss while producing a gain to Dick, Tom’s mark will fall in field H: Tom acted helplessly. If Tom takes an action by which he makes a gain while yielding a gain also to Dick, Tom’s mark will fall in area I: Tom acted intelligently. If Tom takes an action by which he makes a gain causing Dick a loss, Tom’s mark will fall in area B: Tom acted as a bandit. Stupidity is related to area S and to all positions on Y-axis below point O.
As the Third Basic Law explicitly clarifies:
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.
When confronted for the first time with the Third Basic Law, rational people instinctively react with feelings of skepticism and incredulousness. The fact is that reasonable people have difficulty conceiving and understanding unreasonable behavior. But let us abandon the lofty plane of theory and let us look pragmatically at our daily life. We all recollect occasions in which a fellow took an action that resulted in his gain and in our loss: we had to deal with a bandit. We also recollect cases in which a fellow took an action which resulted in his loss and in our gain: we had to deal with a helpless person. We can recollect cases in which a fellow took an action by which both parties gained: he was intelligent. Such cases do indeed occur. But upon thoughtful reflection you must admit that these are not the events that punctuate most frequently our daily life. Our daily life is mostly made up of cases in which we lose money and/or time and/or energy and/or appetite, cheerfulness, and good health because of the improbable action of some preposterous creature who has nothing to gain and indeed gains nothing from causing us embarrassment, difficulties or harm. Nobody knows, understands, or can possibly explain why that preposterous creature does what he does. In fact there is no explanation—or better, there is only one explanation: the person in question is stupid.
Most people do not act consistently. Under certain circumstances a given person acts intelligently and under different circumstances the same person will act helplessly. The only important exception to the rule is represented by the stupid people, who normally show a strong proclivity toward perfect consistency in all fields of human endeavors.
From all that proceeds, it does not follow that we can chart on the basic graph only stupid individuals. We can calculate for each person his weighted average position in the plane of figure 1 quite independently from his degree of inconsistency. A helpless person may occasionally behave intelligently and on occasion he may perform a bandit’s action. But since the person in question is fundamentally helpless, most of his action will have the characteristics of helplessness. Thus the overall weighted average position of all the actions of such a person will place him in the H quadrant of the basic graph.
The fact that it is possible to place on the graph individuals instead of their actions allows some variance in the frequency of the bandit and stupid types.
The perfect bandit is one who, with his actions, causes to other individuals losses equal to his gains. The crudest type of banditry is theft. A person who robs you of 100 dollars without causing you an extra loss or harm is a perfect bandit: you lose 100 dollars, he gains 100 pounds. In the basic graph the perfect bandits would appear on a 45-degree diagonal line that divides the area B into two perfectly symmetrical subareas (line OM of figure 2).
However, the “perfect” bandits are relatively few. The line OM divides the area B into two subareas, BI and BS, and by far the largest majority of the bandits fall somewhere in one of these two subareas.
The bandits who fall in area BI are those individuals whose actions yield to them profits that are larger than the losses they cause to other people. All bandits who are entitled to a position in area BI are bandits with overtones of intelligence, and as they get closer to the right side of the X-axis they share more and more the characteristics of the intelligent person. Unfortunately the individuals entitled to a position in the BI area are not very numerous. Most bandits actually fall in area BS.
Copyright © 2020 by Carlo M. Cipolla. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.