Stupidity today is on display more than ever. Yet it is that “elephant in the room” few talk about or are aware of. There is much to be learned about it from an essay by an Italian economic historian named Carol Cipolla (August 15, 1922 – September 5, 2000). Graduating from the University of Pavia in 1944, Cipolla studied at the University of Paris and the London School of Economics. In 1953, he left Italy for the United States as a Fulbright fellow and in 1957 became visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Two years later he obtained a full professorship.
Cipolla’s interests were eccentric and he wrote books and studies about things such as clocks, guns, depressions, faithand reason. When he died in 2000, his obituary from UC Berkeley noted Cipolla as one of the leading economic historians of his generation. The author of more than 20 books, Cipolla is well known to specialists for his studies in medieval and early modern Italy and to a wider audience for his contributions to economic and social history.
In 1976, he wrote a humorous essay titled “The Fundamental Laws of Human Stupidity.” In the essay, he viewed stupid people as a group, more powerful by far than major organizations such as the Mafia and the Industrial Complex which without regulations, leaders or manifesto nonetheless manages to operate to great effect and with incredible coordination.
The essay became a national bestseller in Italy and was produced as a play in France. It proposed five fundamental laws of stupidity:
- Always and inevitably, everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
- The probability that a certain person (will) be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
- 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.
- 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.
- A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.
A corollary to the essay is that a stupid person is more dangerous than a pillager. His essay was linked to society as a whole via his third law that lists two factors to consider when exploring human behavior:
- Benefits and losses an individual causes to him or herself.
- Benefits and losses an individual causes to others.
By creating a graph with the first factor on the x-axis and the second on the y-axis, he noted four groups of people, with an additional category (ineffectual people) either existing in its own right or drawn from the members of each previous category whose position with respect to both axes is least extreme:
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In the early 1600s, Johannes Kepler put forth his three laws of planetary motion, providing an accurate description of the movement of the Solar System’s planets around the Sun. By the end of the century, Isaac Newton followed Kepler’s example with three laws of his own, describing the relationship between an object and the forces acting on it and laying the foundations for classical mechanics. In 1905, Einstein proposed is Theory of Special Relativity. And, in 1976, Cipolla proposed his Basic Law of Human Stupidity. Unlike the laws of Kepler, Newton and Einstein, Cipolla’s laws are not taught in grade school. But they hold lessons worthy of much reflection in our modern era.