Sunday, June 06, 2021

It's the stupidity, stupid

There's a fabulous little 1976 essay by Carlo M Cipolla, The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. It's been reissued recently and explains much of the mess the UK is in.

It's a transactional analysis. He divides people into four basic categories: the helpless, the intelligent, the bandit and the stupid. The helpless lose while the other party gains at their expense, in an exchange between intelligent people both parties gain, the bandit is someone who profits from another's losses, but then there is the most numerous category, the stupid.

This definition is from his third (and golden) basic law:

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.

It's a pretty good working definition of stupidity, much more precise than than the word's customary use as a vague insult. Though I would want to de-personalise it. Intelligent people can promote stupid ideas, but as a description of stupid policy, it's pretty good. 

And it defines Brexit. There are no gains, everyone has lost something – the EU, the UK, individual citizens, business, services, Northern Ireland, the arts; everyone. There have not even been any savings, it's cost far more than it has saved in EU contributions. However devoted Brexiters are, it doesn't stop it being stupid.*

Now it has happened, it has to be dealt with. That's not easy.

Cipolla points out that the other categories of people can't understand the stupid. They think that people are behaving according to rational self-interest. Some talk about Brexiters' dark motives, claiming that they are out to make money, that they are disaster capitalists and tax avoiders, that there is some EU regulation that they want to avoid, or that there is a mysterious profit that they will make, rather than them simply being people attached to a stupid idea. Stupidity is baffling to those who are not stupid. Cipolla writes:

Our daily life is mostly, made of cases in which we lose money and/or time and/or energy and/or appetite, cheerfulness and good health because of the improbable action of some preposterous creature who has nothing to gain and indeed gains nothing from causing us embarrassment, difficulties or harm. Nobody knows, understands or can possibly explain why that preposterous creature does what he does. In fact there is no explanation - or better there is only one explanation: the person in question is stupid.

Yep, Brexit is stupid – end of.

The damage has been done, most of it is permanent. The businesses that have left will not be coming back, neither will many of the people. As for the UK's reputation, it's ruined. So, what do we do? More importantly, what does the opposition do? They face a problem. They have to win back the support of the people who voted for Brexit and, for the time being, remain attached to it. They also need the support of the more numerous of their supporters who voted against it. The solution they've chosen is to pretend either that it doesn't exist or, if it does, that there's nothing they can do, or even that we must even "embrace" it as if it wasn't stupid. They have chosen helplessness, or, at best, saying that they could do the stupid thing a little less stupidly. And that brings me to Cipolla's 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 a costly mistake...

Through centuries and millennia, in public as in private life, countless individuals have failed to take account of the Fourth Basic Law and the failure has caused mankind incalculable losses.

Labour's strategy, driven by a contestable analysis of strategically important voters, is to accept Brexit as immutable, just as the tide of opinion is flowing in the opposite direction. What's more stupid – a stupid policy or treating a stupid policy as if it was not stupid?

Of course it will fail. It works on the assumption that the stupid are rational. Cipolla again:

A stupid creature will harass you for no reason, for no advantage, without any plan or scheme and at the most improbable times and places. You have no rational way of telling if and when and how and why the stupid creature attacks. When confronted with a stupid individual you are completely at his mercy. Because the stupid person’s actions do not conform to the rules of rationality, it follows that:
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.
The fact that the activity and movements of a stupid creature are absolutely erratic and irrational not only makes defense problematic but it also makes any counter-attack extremely difficult - like trying to shoot at an object which is capable of the most improbable and unimaginable movements. This is what both Dickens and Schiller had in mind when the former stated that "with stupidity and sound digestion man may front much" and the latter wrote that "against stupidity the very Gods fight in vain."

And this is what's happening now. As we reap the reward of their stupidity, the government attacks the deal that they negotiated, on terms they asked for, whose MPs voted for, which they lauded during the election campaign and then blame the EU for its failings. How do you fight that? 

It's also explains why the current regime of the stupid is wedded to lying. If their actions have no rational structure, they aren't tied to truth. And if truth is inconvenient, why bother with it?

Mendacity and stupidity walk together. The only way to oppose a politics of falsehood is by the radical act of telling the truth. Opposition doesn't come from obfuscation. To say that a stupid policy is, indeed, stupid, isn't comfortable, it opens up some tough battles. But to appease stupidity is to allow it to reign in perpetuity. This is the challenge the opposition faces. And they're ducking it. This is how the intelligent fail. The nation needs them to win.

*There have been collateral benefits for some. Brexit was a rebellion by the stupid part of the elite against the intelligent. It was driven by resentment at their exclusion because of their stupidity. They won but haven't a clue what to do with their victory because they are stupid. This is how Johnson became PM, a position he craved despite being manifestly unsuited to the job. Other European nations have also gained much of the business we have lost, but then they recognise that their gains came their way because of our stupidity.