(Written 4 Sept 2010)

Dear All,

This week, a pseudo-paper titled The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity written under the pseudonym Carlo M. Cipolla landed on my desk. (There is reason to believe that the writer is a professor of economics at UC Berkley.) It is all tongue-in-cheek stuff but as with many a good joke, is underpinned by some common sense. May I point out right away that the writer does not use the words ‘being stupid’ as the OED would have it, meaning ‘being dull or slow-witted’, but as someone who initiates interactions that does harm to others as well as themselves.

The writer proposes a model in which four types of people can be identified and they can be represented in a 2 x 2 matrix. (MBAs and economists just love using 2 x 2 matrices to classify stuff… just look at any MBA text). Each of the four types is defined by the outcome of the interactions that they initiate and they are:

  • The (H) helpless: The result of an interaction initiated by the helpless is that the other person gains and the helpless loses.
  • The (I) intelligent: The result of an interaction initiated by the intelligent is that both the other person and the intelligent gain.
  • The (B) bandit: The result of an interaction initiated by the bandit is that the other person loses and the bandit gains.
  • The (S) stupid: The result of an interaction initiated by the stupid is that both the other person and the stupid lose.

For instance; bandits manufacture cigarettes, the helpless smoke cigarettes, the stupid don’t stop at red traffic lights, the intelligent support the schools in their community.

Now here comes the interesting bit. The writer suggests that in any community, in any society, at any time, there will be a constant proportion of (S) stupid people to non-stupid people. It does not matter whether you consider a gang of labourers, an administration of blue-collar workers, a suite of white-collar executives, a monastery of priests, a cell of criminals, or a department of university professors, the proportion of stupid people in any group will always be more or less the same! Moreover, unlike the non-stupid people in the group, who will at various times behave as a (H) helpless, or an (I) intelligent or a (B) bandit person, the stupid people in any group have a tendency always to remain the stupid people. Incidentally, it seems that stupid people are stupid by divine providence. No comment, what the hell do I know about divine providence?

Now, because the ratio between the three non-stupid categories, (H) helpless, (I) intelligent and (B) bandits, is quite fluid, there is the social characteristic that progressive societies will have a greater proportion of intelligent people, while regressive societies will have a smaller percentage of intelligent people; but always the proportion of stupid people remains about the same. Exactly what the proportion of (S) stupid people to non-stupid people around you may be is not stated by the writer, but he insists that whatever proportion you judge it to be, the real answer is always “more than that”. So now, to the Biblical injunction (Mark 14:7) “ye have the poor with you always”, we can add “we also have the stupid with us always”.

Regards

Jeff

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