How the Basic Laws of Human Stupidity Explain Trump

In 1976, an Italian economic historian by the name of Carlo M. Cipolla produced an essay entitled The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. It is academic in tone, if mostly facetious in intent, but it does serve to explain and illuminate the human condition and the curse of stupidity.*

It is also useful to understand how we got stuck with Trump as the Republican nominee. Before I go further, I should emphasize that I don’t think all Trump supporters are stupid, especially not the reluctant ones. What I want to address is less the arguments against Trump and more the question of how we got here, because conservatives are still getting over their surprise.

The first basic law of human stupidity is as follows: Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.

Conservatives will nod their head in agreement, first and foremost because they couldn’t understand the cult of personality surrounding Barack Obama that made people want to elect a guy with barely a resume. America did.

So we get it now, right? Hardly. That would violate the law. As Cipolla explains, one cannot even put “a specific numerical value to the fraction of stupid people within the total population” because “any numerical estimate would turn out to be an underestimate.” Even when we adjusted our estimate at the prevalence of stupidity among the U.S. electorate, we were still coming up short.

This explains 1) why no matter what Trump does, it doesn’t sink him and 2) why the longer he’s around, more Republicans capitulate the pressure to back him: “people whom one had once judged rational and intelligent turn out to be unashamedly stupid.”

Certainly, conservatives were also in error partially because, as we consider conservatism rational, we assumed that most of the stupidity was on the Left. That brings us to the second law, which reads, The probability that a certain person (will) be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.

Cipolla tends to give demographic and socioeconomic examples of this law, but it stands to reason (and now seems supported by experience) that it also applies to party and the political spectrum. (Again, I pause to say that I don’t consider conservatism as “stupid” as liberalism; one can simply be stupid and sometimes be right, as well as smart but sometimes wrong.)

No wonder there are people who opposed Obama based on his lack of experience or specifics, who now have no problem backing Trump despite his own lack of experience or specifics. Stupid people will unwittingly be inconsistent in their support of a political empty suit and Van Heusen-line tie.

We have reached the point in the essay where Cipolla clarifies what he means by a stupid person. Whereas intelligent people do things that benefit themselves and others, helpless or naive people help others at the expense of themselves (think gullible people for example), and bandits harm others for their own benefit, stupid people are defined in the following way: 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.

In other words, there is always aggregate loss in society by the existence of stupid people. What follows logically leads to some very interesting conclusions, but they are addressed in the fifth law, and before we get there, we find more illuminating conclusions as Cipolla delves deeper into the power of stupidity.

Essentially, the reason the non-stupid underestimate the stupid is that “reasonable people find it difficult to imagine and understand unreasonable behaviour.” This makes it very difficult to combat. #neverTrump conservatives who have attempted to debate the stupid among Trump’s supporters have experienced the head-desk inducing frustrations described by the scenario Cipolla here explicates:

When attacked by a stupid person “a) one is generally caught by surprise by the attack; b) even when one becomes aware of the attack, one cannot organize a rational defense, because the attack itself lacks any rational structure.”

I know the feeling, Carlo.

This leads him logically to the fourth 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 a costly mistake.

We can’t predict it, cannot make sense of it, cannot reason with it. Stupidity rears its head in ways that are by nature impossible to rationally expect. Again, when conservatives continued to expect people who liked Trump from the get-go to eventually see the light, we were falling prey to the first law. When we assumed that his support was a fringe movement that would never have the power to get him elected, we fell to the fourth law.

Now we reach the fifth and final law of human stupidity. If you recall a sentence from our discussion of the third law, you’ll also remember that there is always aggregate loss in society due to the existence of stupid people.

On an individual level, this is represented by the fifth law: A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person. There is a logical corollary to this law: A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit.

Trump represents this because there is little benefit for anyone in America that can be reasonably expected from his presidency. At least the so-called Establishment benefits itself. At least big government helps a few, even if it harms more. Trumpism, as it basks in ignorance on economics, the Constitution, its own effect on societal and cultural values and even basic facts, wrecks itself and its intended beneficiaries even as it attempts to wrest benefits from those who have unfairly reaped them before.

Most importantly, it is having a devastating effect on conservatism, at least in the near term, both in its effect on the soul of the conservative movement and its perception among the otherwise possibly persuadable public.

P. J. O’Rourke was unconsciously articulating a possible conclusion to that same corollary when he said Clinton is “wrong about absolutely everything, but she’s wrong within normal parameters.” He recognizes the extreme nature of Trumpian stupidity.

He continued along this line of thought in his article ‘I’m Endorsing Hillary Clinton, the Devil We Know.’ Clinton is terrible, but she might benefit some people. She might even help Republicans in the long run.

As he writes: “She’ll work a miracle for the Republican Party. I’ve seen the GOP die and be buried before—with Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Watergate. In four short years there was a Second Coming.”

Far be it from me to endorse Hillary Clinton. But just as far be it from me to beclown myself and becrown myself stupid by backing Trump.

Is there any hope for America now that we have discovered and continue to discover the depth and breadth of stupidity left and right in the American electorate? Happily, Cipolla offers a glimmer of hope in his own conclusions.

All this suggests some reflection on the performance of societies. According to the Second Basic Law, the fraction of stupid people is a constant…which is not affected by time, space, race, class or any other sociocultural or historical variable. It would be a profound mistake to believe the number of stupid people in a declining society is greater than in a developing society. Both such societies are plagued by the same percentage of stupid people. The difference between the two societies is that in the society which performs poorly:

a) the stupid members of the society are allowed by the other members to become more active and take more actions; b) there is a change in the composition of the non-stupid section with a relative decline of populations [of stupid-leaning bandits and helpless people] and a proportionate increase of populations [of intelligent-leaning bandits and helpless people].

He goes on…

Whether one considers classical, or medieval, or modern or contemporary times one is impressed by the fact that any country moving uphill has its unavoidable…fraction of stupid people. However the country moving uphill also has an unusually high fraction of intelligent people who manage to keep the [stupid] fraction at bay and at the same time produce enough gains for themselves and the other members of the community to make progress a certainty.

In a country which is moving downhill, the fraction of stupid people is still equal…however in the remaining population one notices among those in power an alarming proliferation of the bandits with overtones of stupidity…and among those not in power an equally alarming growth in the number of helpless individuals…. Such change in the composition of the non-stupid population inevitably strengthens the destructive power of the [stupid] fraction and makes decline a certainty. And the country goes to Hell.

The answer then, is to seek to increase the number of and or power of those who are intelligent, or intelligent-leaning helpless people and bandits. In other words, we must look for allies among those whose ideas and actions are not always beneficial to all. The truly stupid are generally worthless to the overall cause of improving American society, culture, politics and policy — regardless of which side of the aisle they come down on.

The Right, long happy with the number of people who joined its ranks, was far too little concerned with the quality of those who enjoyed influence. The result has been a corrosive effect which has now eaten its way to the light of day in the form of Donald Trump. Only by realizing our naivete can we turn the ship back in the direction of intelligence.


*The theses of the essay have even been tested in scholarly articles, such as this one.

About the author

J. Cal Davenport

View all posts