It’s a short book. It is perhaps the shortest book that I’ve reviewed. However, there’s something profound about The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, which is both hidden from view and inherently true. We’ve been told not to back a wild animal into a corner, since they have nothing left to lose and will do anything to escape. So too, should we be concerned about stupid people.
The primary model of the book is a matrix. The dimensions are self-outcomes and other-outcomes labeled from negative to positive. This forms four quadrants. The quadrants are labeled helpless, intelligent, bandit, and stupid. The helpless create negative self-outcomes, but positive other outcomes. The intelligent create positive outcomes for everyone. The bandit creates positive self-outcomes but negative other-outcomes. The stupid creates negative outcomes for both themselves and others.
This isn’t the typical definition of stupid – but it’s one that works well. The people who are the most unpredictable – and therefore risky – are those who are willing to apply a “scorched Earth” approach where everyone loses. Much like the cornered wild animal, you just don’t know what they’ll do.
The laws tell us how to navigate a world with stupid people. They are:
- Always and inevitably, everyone underestimates the number of stupid people in circulation.
- The probability that a certain person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
- A stupid person causes losses to another person or group of persons while themselves deriving no gain and 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 infallibly turns out to be a costly mistake.
Many people encounter the book and wonder if Carlo Cipolla was serious. Most come to the conclusion that the work is a serious one intended to highlight a challenge with humanity. It’s exposing the truth of humanity and sharing a warning, because stupid people are always gumming up the works.
The basic premise of the book is that stupid people are impoverishing society. By definition, they are reducing the gains for everyone. By knowing that stupid people are everywhere, we can begin to fight against The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.