The Ukraine war has triggered a global surge in human stupidity

Photo: AP
Photo: AP


Societies, governments, businesses and individuals are harming their own interests in their response

In The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, a brief but very insightful treatise on the subject, the 20th century economic historian Carlo M. Cipolla defines a stupid person as one who harms others while deriving no benefit oneself. Unlike intelligent people who create win-win outcomes or bandits who benefit at the cost of others, stupid people act in ways that create lose-lose scenarios. In a way, Cipolla resolves “one of history’s most compelling paradoxes" that Barbara Tuchman poses in The March of Folly—why governments pursue policies that are contrary to their own interests. The answer is stupidity.

I have been unable to banish Cipolla’s theory from my mind amid the war in Ukraine. How else can we explain the West overstepping so deeply into Russia’s comfort zone, Xi Jinping offering Vladimir Putin a carte blanche, and the latter deciding to launch an invasion that would have achieved more had it not been carried out? Scholars spend an undue amount of time attacking a strawman, bayonetting the much-slashed corpse of the “rational actor" hypothesis, but are mostly too uptight to acknowledge that the “stupid actor" theory has a lot going for it.

Lest you think stupidity is limited to the world’s political leaders, consider some of the other Ukraine-related developments of the past few weeks. In my previous column, I pointed out how multinational corporations (MNCs) and global technology companies shot themselves in their profit-and-loss statements by pulling out of Russia and signalling their subservience to Western government policies. Whatever the pressure this has put on Putin, they have unintentionally set back the cause of globalization by decades.

Many people in the tech community look down on politicians and “management types" and often smugly believe in their general smartness. Yet a few actions by over-zealous engineers have massively damaged the global trust in open source software. One developer took it upon himself to punish Russia by injecting ‘protestware’ code into a software library that is used by hundreds of other applications. Before it was detected and removed, the code deleted all files on computers with Russian IP addresses. In another case, a developer changed the licence terms of a software module and required its users to acknowledge the illegality of Russia’s invasion and accept that Putin is a member of the male anatomy. As Gerald Benischke points out in a well-circulated blog post, not only do these actions violate the letter and spirit of open source software, they are killing the trust that took decades to build. Software supply chains will now become more expensive, unreliable and inefficient.

The Ukrainian government asked the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to cut off Russian domains from the internet. This was declined, but the notion that an entire country ought to be disconnected from the internet fulfils Cipolla’s stupidity criterion. The whole internet is more valuable than the sum of its parts (which is why China’s and Mark Zuckerberg’s attempts to sequester it must be opposed.) But even from a narrower perspective, how will you reach out to the Russian people if you—like your adversary Putin—cut them off?

This is also the reason why Joe Biden’s proposal to expel Russia from the G-20 would make Cipolla smile. For one, completely isolating Russia leaves fewer routes to resolving the conflict and containing the war. But it also defeats the fundamental purpose of a grouping designed to coordinate the policies of the world’s major powers amid global disorder. With the United Nations and other multilateral institutions practically defunct, the G-20 is one of most important forums for global political and economic diplomacy. The greater the divergence in the positions of its members, the more necessary it is.

Then there is the use of mercenaries, foreign fighters or volunteer brigades by both sides. Volodymyr Zelensky invited foreign fighters to help defend Ukraine and even set up an international brigade. Russia has reportedly inducted Syrian fighters, Chechen irregulars and private mercenaries into the fight. It is one thing for combatant governments to recruit mercenaries, but entirely another for non-combatant societies to applaud them. Anyone who thinks that their own societies will not suffer a violent blowback from the returning alumni of foreign wars have been dozing in their history classes and in front of their television screens.

I could go on. An Italian university dropped Fyodor Dostoevsky (author of, among other novels, The Idiot) from its syllabus merely because he was Russian, while the Space Foundation removed Yuri Gagarin’s name from an event. People even dumped good vodka, except that it is mostly made in Sweden, Latvia and the US.

Oh, and Vladimir Putin threatened nuclear war.

“A stupid person," Cipolla concludes, “is the most dangerous type of person. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. And always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation."

Sadly, this is all too clear today.

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy

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