The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

The prime directive that the Buddha gave to humanity was as simple as it was wise: First do no harm; then try to do good. Easy enough to state but it is astonishingly hard to follow for the average human being. Granted that the average human has occasional flashes of genius, but those are rare and therefore shine brightly against a backdrop of all-pervasive darkness of the general stupidity of humanity at large. No one, present company included, is quite exempt from moments of supreme stupidity and random acts of senselessness. Stupidity is as much part of our human condition as our much vaunted rationality. Which is why it is so difficult to follow the Buddha’s directive: we are just not smart enough.

I believe that the first hints of the dawning of wisdom lies in the realization that one is stupid. That realization is as profound – if not profounder – as that of one’s mortality. In the Mahabharata, someone asks, “Of all the wonders of the universe, which is the most wondrous of all?” It is one of those occasional geniuses who replies, “Man sees death and mortality all around him all his life. But he is never quite fully persuaded of his own mortality.”

We see stupidity and senselessness around us all the time but are never fully convinced of our own stupidity. That is the most marvelous fact about the human condition.

Codifying the regularity of the natural world into laws is a basic instinct of scholars. So I presume that human stupidity has been studied systematically by many scholars. I have not done an exhaustive study of such laws. Just a cursory search on the web led me to Prof Carlo Cipolla’s “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.” He was an economic historian and professor emeritus at University of California at Berkeley, my alma mater, until he passed into the great unknown in September 2000 at the age of 78 in his native Italy.

One has to read the entire article to fully appreciate the beautifully expressed thesis. I excerpt here the basic laws as Prof Cipolla saw them, for the record:

  • First Basic Law: Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  • Second Basic Law: The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
  • Third (and Golden) Basic Law: A stupid person is a person who caused losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
  • Fourth Basic Law: 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 costly mistake.
  • Fifth Basic Law: A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.
  • Corollary to the Fifth Basic Law: A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit.

Which brings me to why I am so interested in stupidity. I think that most of the world’s ills, including India’s, are fundamentally explained by the conjecture that it is the result of stupidity. Therefore I extend the Fifth Basic law:

  • Second corollary to the Fifth Basic Law: A stupid person who is supremely powerful is more dangerous than a thermonuclear bomb.

The United States, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, is surely being destroyed by its leaders and that destruction is worse than would be caused by a few thermonuclear bombs, in my considered opinion.

Closer to home, I note that India has no real cause to be so poor other than the fact that systematically over the decades policy decisions have been taken that have ensured that India does not achieve its potential. Though the routes are different, the actions of very powerful but stupid people have consequences that are not ultimately distinguishable from that of thermonuclear destruction, that of hundreds of millions of lives cut short and many other hundred millions not really living a decent human existence.

India’s development, I am forced to conclude, depends on non-stupid leadership taking charge of the country. Possible? Of course. Probable? Not very.

Author: Atanu Dey


7 thoughts on “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity”

  1. Atanu, at the risk of repetition, I would assert all over again; the so called “leaders” come from the same fabric of society that elects them. If they are “stupid”, then surely the whole lot of people exercising their franchise must be “gloriously stupid”.

    While there are many complex dimensions to people we seen in Parliament or Vidhan Sabhas, we must accept the fact that Indians don’t vote keeping in mind the larger interests of the nation. For example, how can you explain the leftists in power from those very states where they have pushed them to economic disasters?

    On the whole, it wouldn’t be fair to call them stupid; I personally believe that calling for a greater development or perhaps asking for a greater say in the developmental process is tinged with urban bias. 15 years Laloo got elected ( by rigging or extra constituional means doesn’t matter here)- repeatedly people voted him to power on the premise that roads would be as smooth as Hema’s cheeks.

    Before I end, it is indeed disheartening to see the extreme form of political naivette coming in the mainstream press; either in the English Media or it’s regional cousins. Swami Vivekananda’s call for a greater enlightment has more meaning now.


  2. I am less pessimistic about stupidity. I have a pet theory – most people have one area of fairly good competence+intelligence, but in all other areas, we are “stupid”. The problem occurs when people judge someone in one area and then extrapolate to another.

    e.g. X is an entertaining and apparently empathetic speaker who is vocally loyal to his community, so the electorate assumes he will govern well too. Because I once got good grades in an engineering school, an employer assumes I will be a good employee too.

    I am probably just restating the Peter Principle, but my optimism is that people can LEARN to judge others by the domain and say “you are a great stock analyst, and I will buy the stock you recommend, but your advice on what car would be best for me will have to stand on its own merit.”


  3. I think the central issue is not one of stupidity or competence, but one of motivation. Most people fail to follow Buddha’s prime directive not because they are unable to do otherwise, but because they are unwilling to do so. True, people are not nearly as rational as they like to imagine, but I think more damage is done by those who seek to harm others for their own gain than those who seek to help others but screw up.

    India is poor because it’s only just starting to function as a unit. Till recently, India was several independent political units, each working for its own benefit, often at the cost of its neighbours. It takes more than a few decades to undo centuries of internal squabbling. Progress, however inefficiently, is being made. True, it’d be made a lot faster if people were rational, but I think it’d be faster still if people weren’t greedy.

    Atanu’s response: I beg to disagree with you on this point. I think our inability to “do no harm” arises from our incomplete understanding of what will cause harm. Most people end up doing harm when they mean well. It is not evil intentions that cause the most harm. It is good intentions incorrectly executed that causes the harm.

    About the “independent political units” matter: I am not sure that there is anything wrong in having a collection of independent political units working for their own benefit. Independent political units are analogous to independent economic agents interacting in a marketplace for their own benefit and in the aggregate end up in reaching the collective good. Cooperation emerges as a result of competitive behavior because the economic agents calculate (correctly) that if they cooperate, they will be better off than if they were to not cooperate. It is important to realize that in a marketplace, people do not squabble; they try to trade with each other. Squabbling is something people do when they compete with each other to get away with whatever they can from a pile of goodies that is up for grabs. In India, or anywhere else, where there is “free stuff,” (such as what is stolen by the government and then made available to favored parties) there is squabbling and internal strife.


  4. Stupidity seems to be unconscious or rather not deliberately nurtured and created by the said stupid person. But I think that like laziness, stupidity in a human being shows a lack of intent to be otherwise, shows an ill-will that is quite deep, because it generates evil in the form of destruction and harm all over.

    Indifference too is dangerous, and inertia, stupidity, laziness lead to indifference to every issue, important or otherwise. These also are in a strange way the result of a general attitude of indifference in one.


  5. Independent political units are analogous to independent economic agents interacting in a marketplace for their own benefit and in the aggregate end up in reaching the collective good.

    The similarity did strike me, but there’s a crucial difference between the two situations. In a marketplace, you are allowed to do whatever you please as long as you don’t infringe on anyone’s rights (with the exception of a few antitrust laws etc.). A large company can’t just go out and capture/destroy the competition. You win a larger market share simply by being more productive and efficient.
    Political units are allowed a wider range of tactics. A large country can dominate a smaller one by force, either destroying its resources (to weaken it and reduce competition) or capturing resources from it. Being destructive is actually a legitimate tactic; I think this changes the rules of the competition significantly.

    Atanu’s response: I would distinguish between political units and military units. Political units — states — have militaries but that does not mean that political units are congruent with military units. Militaries are not economic agents and they do not interact in a marketplace. Political units can and do interact in what can be called a “political marketplace.”


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