How stupid are we?


As human beings, we do an amazing number of dumb things, and we tolerate an even greater number of truly dumb things done to us, as though we didn’t know any better. This essay is an attempt to know better. It lists some of my favourite stupidities, and suggests how we might try to manage some of them.

I base my view of others on the assumption that everyone acts in their own rational best interest at all times, based on their best available information. If someone tolerates a dumb situation, it is presumably because the cost of changing that situation exceeds the benefit. I guess this is the conclusion that Gordon Tullock came to with his Public Choice theory.  However, I believe we must constantly re-assess our available information, and the cost of change. The internet can have a dramatic impact on both.

The Professions

Doctors, lawyers, engineers seek to protect their influence and incomes by forbidding others to practice unless they join their elite club. So, you can’t seek treatment from the person you prefer, you can’t take the medication you think you need, you can’t argue your own case in many courts, you can’t even build your own house, unless some authorised functionary of the system has given approval, informed or otherwise. And their excuse for requiring their permission – it’s because you are too stupid to work this out for yourself, you’re too stupid to distinguish between a charlatan and an expert, you’re so stupid you don’t even know what’s good for you.

Even worse, you hand over responsibility for your health to someone who profits from your continuing illness. You put your continuing freedom in the hands of someone who only profits when your freedom is threatened.  You only buy new goods from a manufacturer when the old one’s fail or become obsolete.

There are many professions that don’t require the threat of force to guarantee their business. Actors, authors, artists, sex workers, all consider themselves “professionals”, yet don’t call the police if you choose to bypass their services, and do the job yourself, or get a trusted friend in. Of course, members of these professions are notoriously poor.

The funny thing is that these restrictions on competition are only firmly enforced against those who can afford to pay. The very poor, who are presumably most in need of “protection”, are largely ignored by the professions – who cares if they go to unlicensed witch doctors, or go to jail because they can’t afford a licensed lawyer, or slap up any old shack for themselves and their dozens of children?

Unions

Working class people saw the success that the professions had in protecting their privileges, and decided to join the party by forming unions. However, like the professions, unions managed to get more rights than individuals. Suddenly, as an individual worker in a unionised industry, you were no longer free to negotiate your own working conditions. Employers were no longer free to hire or fire as they saw fit. The market was no longer free to determine wage levels. And we’re all stupid enough to simply put up with this abrogation of our rights.

Politicians

Supposedly, politicians are there to protect our interests, because we’re too stupid to protect them ourselves. But who do they protect our interests from? Why, other politicians, silly!

How do they do this vital protecting? Well, they are no good at fighting (how many politicians do you see in the frontlines of any war?), and they aren’t very smart (if they were, they’d get a real job), and they aren’t even very nice (just look at history). They protect us by passing laws, millions of them, and then try to enforce them.  They get together in very grand, very expensive assemblies and they collectively wish for good things to happen, then they write all these wishes down, like children appealing to Santa Claus. But,  if we break a single one of their written down wishes,  they call out the cops and send us stupid people to jail.

That’s how they protect our interests, but mostly, that’s how they protect their interests.

Government

Politicians give rise to governments, like farts give rise to bad smells.  Governments enforce the will of the successful politicians, who are supposedly fulfilling the will of the people.

But governments don’t trust the people they govern, not one little bit. They don’t trust you to pay for their mediocre services, so they tax you upfront before you’ve even had a chance to see what you’re getting. They don’t trust you to choose your own store of wealth, so they force you to use their laughable currency, which they devalue continuously. They don’t trust you to educate your own children adequately, or to drive safely, or even negotiate a decent contract with your employer. And if you don’t do everything exactly the way they say, they punish you severely.

And every now and then, when they really screw up, they will take ALL your money in the form of hyperinflation, all your sons to fight THEIR wars, and ALL your time to pay their taxes. And yet everybody is convinced we need these idiots!

Religions

Religious people think you are too stupid to work out why you’re here, where you came from and where you’re going to end up. Actually, they are right. EVERYONE is too stupid to answer those questions, religious people included. Nevertheless, they will tell you with absolute authority that god is in that rock over there, or this piece of bread over here, and beat you to death if you don’t believe them. They do all this for your own good of course, like all the rest.
Nowadays, many of us tend to take these nutjobs less seriously than in the past, and their power to make our lives miserable has dwindled accordingly. We need to take the same approach with governments, politicians, professionals, etc.

Fanatics

As Churchill once remarked, “A fanatic is someone who won’t change his mind and can’t change the subject.” Fanatics used to be synonymous with religious nutjobs, but have expanded into many other areas recently. Now we have climate fanatics, animal rights fanatics, doomsday fanatics, health fanatics (AIDS, Swine flu), race fanatics, gender fanatics, child abuse fanatics, socialism fanatics, peak oil fanatics, even science fanatics, to name just a few. They are all characterised by an adamant refusal to consider any opinion other than their own, vitriolic attacks on dissenters, an insistence that their crisis is the world’s biggest, and stringent demands for more of your money.

To counter all these fanatics, you MUST constantly repeat the phrase “Nothing is certain”, at least 1,000 times a day. This is the ONLY way to stop these idiots, before they overwhelm our civilisation. Please support this worthy cause with generous donations to The Non-Fanatics Foundation.

Consciousness

You’re conscious, right? You’re reading this, interacting with the world around you, communicating, making an impact, yes? So what’s the problem? Well, there is no way you can actually prove that. There is no reasonable way that you can be sure that you are not dreaming all those sensations, flat on your back in your bed, or suspended in an alien sensory deprivation tank. Your most elementary grip on reality may be a myth.  But, you cry,  I have memories of the past, plans for the future, the consistency of physics in the present, awareness of others, consciousness! So does a dreamer, a person in a coma, an addict on a drug trip, a patient under anaesthetic.

Despite all our science, and wisdom, and experience, we have no clue as to what the consciousness of a dead person is, or of a tree, or of a rock. In fact, we’re so stupid we can’t even be certain we’re conscious.

Life and death

Life is a miracle. Life is the antithesis of entropy. Life is infinitely precious. How precious? Well, imagine the value, the significance, of the discovery of just one living microbe in the dry, red sands of Mars. It would change our view of the universe for ever.

Life is also fragile, easily extinguished, impossible to retrieve once gone. A smart life form should go out of its way to preserve life, its own and the other life forms around it. But in fact, we live in a maelstrom of death, destroying life as fast as we can find it, from microbes all the way up to each other. This is understandable as conditions on the surface of our planet seem to be unusually conducive to life, leading to serious competition between life forms. But it is not necessarily smart.
Death, or the absence of life, seems to be everywhere. Most of our planet is inanimate, and all of our remaining solar system, and presumably most of our universe. Life, the ability to counter entropy, to assemble rather than to disintegrate, to grow rather than to shrink, this is our most unique characteristic, our reason for existence in an otherwise dead universe.

“Nurture life” would seem to be the closest we can come to an absolute standard of morality, a universal truth. And yet we destroy life with gay abandon, we have wars, and death penalties, our religions glorify death and discount life, we gamble with total annihilation.

How stupid are we?

Sex and violence

Sex is good. It’s fun, you meet new friends, it’s largely harmless, and occasionally it results in adorable new people.

Violence is bad. It’s no fun for most of the people involved, it creates enemies, it’s painful and harmful and sometimes it kills people.

So which do we encourage, in our media, in our sport, in our behaviour, in our children? Violence, of course, because we are so damn stupid. No kiddy cartoon would be complete without a violent, excruciating encounter, no movie for adults is “significant” unless someone gets their face broken. But sex in the media must be reserved for late at nights, must have smutty labels pasted all over it, and is generally frowned upon by ‘respectable’ people.

People who prefer sex to violence are pornographers, dirty old men, perverts, sluts.
People who prefer violence to sex are heroes, soldiers, policemen, pillars of the community, and only occasionally evil.

For a brief period in the sixties a crowd of young people understood this contradiction, and lived the alternative.  I believe the Hawaiians lived in harmony with their bodies and with nature long before our narrow-minded ancestors arrived.    Western society is slowly moving from its obsession with violent, strong men, and finding inspiration in the beauty of our bodies and their union, despite the best efforts of millions of violent nutjobs.

Nudity

Closely allied to our confusion between sex and violence is our ongoing dislike of the appearance of our own bodies. How dumb is that? We are more horrified by nudity than by the obscenity of violence. Why is the picture of a naked, young and beautiful body considered pornography, and widely prohibited, while the picture of a Vietnamese man having his brains blown out, or an Ethiopian baby on the point of death,  is widely displayed for all to view, and considered significant and meaningful.

No one is really bothered by the ongoing mayhem on a rugby field, or in a football stand, but a streaker is instantly tackled, covered, removed and charged. Beautiful women who reveal so much as a nipple on a beach are charged with obscenity, while grossly fat men with bellies hanging over their speedos wander around in full view. Where’s the logic?

Toilet facilities are duplicated at vast expense throughout the world, for what? To avoid the horror of hearing another gender peeing?  Surprisingly that pillar of conservative respectability, the McDonalds fast food chain, has twigged to this and now offers unisex toilets in some of their stores. And civilisation as we know it has not crumbled.

Economics

Right now is an unusually good time to reflect on the stupidity of our economic system, and on our own stupidity as players within this system.
There are several concepts that are so obviously flawed, so contradictory, that one can only assume that it is our stupidity that allows them.

Limited liability: you can incur debts, but you don’t have to pay them. Somehow, this is good for the economic system. Duh?

Fractional reserve: you can lend more money than you have. This will never come back to haunt you. Duh?

Paper currency: you give me a Toyota, and I’ll give you some paper with pictures on it, and no other guarantees whatsoever. You’d have to be really stupid, or Japanese, to accept that deal. Duh?

Inflation: as if its not bad enough giving you bits of paper for your cool motor cars, I’m going to give EVERYBODY lots of the same bits of paper, and assume it won’t affect you. Duh?

Bailouts (Keynesian economics): if I print trillions of those bits of paper, somehow this will encourage you to build even more of those Toyotas and stuff that people actually need. Dang, we’re all so stupid this just might actually work!

Happiness

In my opinion (and that of the American Founding fathers), to be happy you need
1. Life (and the means to sustain it),
2. People (whom you trust and love), and
3. Purpose (and the freedom to pursue it).

You do not need great wealth, or privilege and power, or many possessions, or pleasures aplenty.

Life can be sustained with a bare minimum – ask any Bushman or slum dweller. Wealth and power attracts people whom you do not trust or love. The pursuit of pleasure and possessions provides a poor purpose – pleasures pall and possessions pass away. Ideas, music, literature – these are great purposes which are open to anyone.
I suspect that this is why one tends to see more smiles, more laughter, more camaraderie in a slum than in a condominium, more happiness in a workers’ pub than in a fancy restaurant. It seems to me that the rich and powerful are sometimes too stupid to see this.

How to be less stupid

1. Don’t let people do things to you without your consent.
This may not be simple or easy to achieve, but at least make a start. Understand that nothing is more stupid than being bound by another’s stupidity.

2. Identify and understand what makes you happy, early in life.
This could save you a great deal of wasted time and effort.

3. Life is sacred.
Get used to the idea.

4. Violence is almost always the wrong thing.
There is no one so big you can’t run away from. However, if violence is your only option, its better to win than to lose.

5. You are your own best judge.
Beware of cheap advice from others – like this essay.

6. You are not stupid.
I was just kidding – actually, you’re smart and beautiful and sexy.

Things that are not stupid

Life, love, children, great music, good literature, new ideas, our planet, the universe.

Trevor Watkins Tuesday, 27 July 2010

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