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.