On Some Social Functions of Stupidity, with Special Reference to Genocide

Posted: February 19, 2011 in Evidence Material
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By Kurt Jonassohn–February 1997

One of my childhood memories concerns what my mother said when I had done something particularly stupid. I have no recollection of what that action was, but I have a very clear recollection of my mother’s reaction: “Boy, are you lucky!” she said. Having been caught in that situation, I didn’t feel lucky at all and asked what was lucky about it? She told me that I was lucky that there was no law against stupidity; otherwise I would have been in danger of going to jail.

Her use of the term “stupidity” was not meant to refer to a lack of intelligence – however measured. Instead she meant to denote an inability to handle a situation appropriately or to correctly assess one’s own self-interest – nowadays sometimes referred to as “street-smarts.”

The opposite of stupidity is not intelligence or cleverness. Rather it is the ability to analyze data and to evaluate the outcome of actions for the individual or for the collectivity. This does not imply that such analyses and evaluations will always turn out to be correct. But it does imply that when they turn out to be wrong it was not due to obvious errors in analysis and judgement.

For many years after my mother’s memorable comment I wondered why there was no law against stupidity? Perhaps it was because that would require building a lot of additional jails. It was only years later that I realized that stupidity is its own punishment. Once that realization dawned on me, I started to look at a wide variety of situations that were characterized by some form of stupidity in order to see whether it was true that they generated their own punishments. It is the purpose of this essay to examine a variety of stupidities and their consequences.

Having spent many years as a university teacher, the first illustration that comes to mind concerns the students who try to reduce their workload by plagiarizing or by buying the work of others. It turns out that this form of cheating produces the same result as not doing it. That is to say, the students who are prepared to invest some effort to disguise their cheating are unlikely to be caught, although they could have done their own work with the same amount of effort and without running the risk of being found out. Those who do get caught are those who spent as little effort in their cheating as they would have exerted in doing their own work. In the latter case, they would have ended up with poor grades, but without the consequences of their infraction.

This may seem a pretty trivial example. Unfortunately, the same process may be observed on a societal scale involving a much more serious process. In many countries that produced enough food for their people, after a communist regime came to power, people have not prospered and often even starved. This is true even for those countries that used to export their agricultural surplus before the advent of communism. The reason, in oversimplified form, is that these regimes were more interested in rapid industrialization than in maintaining and improving agricultural production. This latter effort was considered important only in order to produce exports than would finance the importation of the technology required for rapid industrialization. Feeding their own people was not considered important because food could be imported with the profits reaped from industrialization. The well-known result was that agricultural production declined at the same time as industrialization did not produce the predicted benefits. Of course, the enormous investments in national security and armaments aggravated that situation. The reason this is a case of stupidity is that the ruling elites might well have anticipated these results if they had been less preoccupied with ideology and paid more attention to other countries where similar policies had been tried.

Soviet Russia is perhaps the best-known example, partly because it was the first major country to embark on the communist path. It not only experienced major, largely man-made, famines in the 1920s and the 1930s, it also turned an agriculture that used to produce significant surpluses for export into an agriculture that still does not even produce enough food for its own people. Even when it did produce a good crop, the infrastructure had been allowed to deteriorate to such an extent that the harvest could be neither stored nor transported to market. The demise of the communist regime has not yet improved that situation because the resources for building the needed infrastructure have not yet been made available.

China has the distinction of having “produced” the most devastating famine of the twentieth century. Many smaller countries have followed on the same path, including several that used to export significant surpluses, such as Poland, Romania, Algeria, etc. What these, otherwise very different, countries have in common was a governing elite that was more interested in ideological imperatives and power – including their own perks – than in the welfare of their people. However, it eventually turns out that ignoring the welfare of their people puts an end to their tenure as the holders of power.

Dear reader: lest you are tempted to think that this is going to be an anti-communist diatribe, there are equally dramatic cases that illustrate the stupidity that can be observed in capitalist societies. In these systems, again in oversimplified form, the dominant elites are interested in the accumulation of capital, power and personal wealth. In the pursuit of these ends they use their influence to subvert any efforts of governments to control some of their more undesirable activities, to counteract unions’ efforts to protect workers interests, and to remove any barriers to what they perceive as their economic interests. Their activities affect the entire world because we live in a world of multi-nationals. The way these elites see their economic interests does create enormous wealth for them, albeit at the expense of keeping most of the world in poverty. That way they can produce in countries with low wages and sell in rich countries at enormous profits. What does not seem to occur to them is what Henry Ford discovered long ago when he paid his workers higher than standard wages so that they could afford to buy his cars. Using the same rationale, it would seem a matter of enlightened self-interest to make sure that the poor of the world have access to better-paying work. By increasing the standard of living of the poor, these economic elites would tremendously increase the market for consumer goods, which in turn would greatly expand their enterprises and increase their profits.

The obvious critique of that suggestion is that individual enterprises would not survive the introduction of such a policy. If one of them were to increase the wages of their workers in the hope that such an increase in income would produce an increase in consumption, several unacceptable results would quickly ensue. The cost of production would increase, the price of their product to the consumer would go up, their competitors would undersell them, and they would eventually be forced out of business.

This critique does not invalidate the proposition that raising the standards of living of the underdeveloped countries would be in the interest of capitalist societies. But it does suggest that such steps must be implemented at the level of societies or of international organizations, not at the level of the firm. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, who have recently been waking up to the fact that their efforts have produced very little, would seem to be in a good position to take the lead in that new direction. Unfortunately, their actions rarely benefit the poor. Thus, they have only just discovered that allowing their funds to be used to bankroll bribery and corruption has undermined their stated objectives. There may well be a number of practical questions to be solved in implementing a program of raising the living standards in developing countries, such as controlling corruption or the possibility of inflation. But there can be little doubt about the economic results this would produce. Individual well-being would increase as a result of greater purchasing power, consumer demand would vastly increase sales, and profits would rise proportionately.

Of course, many countries as well as international organizations and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have expended large amounts of money in efforts to assist in development. Very few have been successful and very many have been failures. An outstanding example of the former was the Marshall Plan after World War II. Many examples of the latter may be found in Africa (among other places). In fact, much of what has masqueraded as development aid was really a method of making countries dependent so that their “benefactors” could exploit them after the end of formal colonialism.

This state of affairs is much too profitable for many multinational corporations to allow much room for hoping that it will change any time soon. At the same time, there are a number of countries and NGOs that have been expending prodigious amounts of money and of energy in an effort to assist poor countries to develop. As admirable as these efforts are, they have produced only minor results. Their efforts and their experiences should be grist for further analyses of the processes involved. Such analyses may well produce results that build on the relevant aspects of the indigenous culture rather that the continued application of experience derived from Western industrialization.

What would be required before any such hope could be realized are at least the following two initiatives. The first one requires a major revision of the motives and the theories underpinning development aid. That would be a major task and it is not at all clear who would undertake it. However, it should be clear that fighting the cold war, propping up undemocratic regimes, and tying aid to the needs of the donors’ economies do not benefit the receiving countries. A number of governments and NGOs have made serious efforts in that direction, albeit mostly with conspicuous lack of success. That lack of success is an indication that the task will not be at all easy.

The second initiative would involve detailed studies of the countries concerned because no universal solution is likely to work. The conditions, history, resources, and political arrangements are much too diverse for any universal project to be applicable. In order for such studies to be fruitful it is probably essential that citizens of the country concerned be intimately involved in such studies.

In view of the enormous difficulties of implementing such a program of raising the poor countries’ standard of living, it seems unlikely that such radical changes will be implemented in the near future. However, it should also be taken into consideration that such an increase in the standard of living of the poor would also contribute to the solution of a great many other problems. It would, for instance, slow down population growth because, when people can see a better future ahead of them, they will voluntarily reduce the size of their family. Their aspirations for themselves, but especially for their children, will seem completely out of reach unless the number of persons that are to benefit can be reduced. To provide adequate food, clothing, and shelter for a large family quickly becomes a symbol of wealth that only the rich can afford. This is not speculation in futurology. The evidence is widely available. Countries with a reasonably comfortable standard of living have low birth rates and small families. Poor countries have high birth rates and large families.

An increase in the standard of living would also increase health because people will be able to afford medical care, which, in turn, would reduce the spread of epidemic diseases. And while individuals will be in better health and will be able to lead more active and productive lives, the state will be able to invest more of the increased tax revenue in public health infrastructure.

The number of problems whose possibility of solution will be increased is too large to be dealt with here. Suffice it to mention the potential reduction of homelessness, of crime, of illiteracy, of infant mortality, etc. that would ensue. The evidence for the relationship between standard of living and these problems is already widely available. (See, for instance, the statistical data published by the United Nations.)

Even more important, in the context of this paper, such an increase in general well-being will contribute significantly to a decrease in gross human rights violations and genocides. While this is not the place to explore the causal connections in detail, it is easily verified that most cases of torture, massacre, and genocide occur in countries plagued by poverty, overcrowding, and the absence of hope for future improvements.

In Germany, the Nazi movement came into existence shortly after World War I, but it only gained wide-spread support and finally came to power in the depth of the great depression. In Turkey, the massacres of the late nineteenth century and the genocide of 1915, occurred in a country whose population remained in poverty while a small elite lived in luxury. The horrors that have characterized the history of both Burundi and Rwanda since the 1950s clearly occurred in the context of overpopulation and increasing poverty. In these predominantly agrarian countries the growth in population meant that agricultural plots became ever smaller and produced only bare survival for the inhabitants. These examples could be multiplied. They do not document the causal linkage between poverty and gross violations of human rights. But there is no question that in these countries human life has become very cheap. Neither is there any question that the correlation between gross poverty and gross violations of human rights is very high.

If even a part of this analysis is correct, then one can only marvel and despair at the stupidity of capitalist elites. It obviously is not true that they are motivated by enlightened self-interest and economically rational decision making — as classical economic theory would have us believe. Instead, they seem to be motivated by short-term gains, regardless of their long-term consequences.

My mother was, of course, right: there is no law against stupidity. For most of us, such a law would not have serious consequences. The stupidities that most of us sooner or later commit would presumably be considered only as minor misdemeanors. But for those whose stupidities have major consequences for the welfare of the people, such a law would have much more serious consequences. In the unlikely event that such a law should ever come into existence, it might well cause decision makers to be more conscientious in analyzing the likely consequences of their proposed policies.

However, whether or not such a law will ever be passed, it seems quite certain that stupidity, like some other features of human nature, will always be with us. Before any readers get depressed about such a state of affairs, they should meditate on the horrors of living in a world totally devoid of stupidity. In such a world good intentions may well result in tremendous improvements. Unfortunately, bad intentions would be equally successfully carried out. Perhaps we should be content with some slight decrease in stupidity among those with good intentions.

Kurt Jonassohn

Source: http://migs.concordia.ca/op_ed/stupidity.html

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