Bandits, victims and idiots

I don’t enjoy politics, I don’t know enough about it, and my privilege greatly insulates me from its negative effects, and so I don’t talk about it much on this blog. My intention in creating the blog lo these decades ago was to make a friendly, human, competent public face to my team at Microsoft, and to get information out about languages that was not in the official documentation; it was not ever intended to be a soapbox. Only a couple times have I commented on political situations, and today will be the third apparently.

I have been thinking many times these last four years, and much more these last few days about the late Italian economic historian Carlo Cipolla. Not because of his economic theories, of which I know very little, but rather because of his theory of stupidity. You can read the principles in brief for yourself at the link above, or the original paper here, but I can summarize thus:

  • Powerful smart people take actions that benefit both themselves and others.
  • Victims lack the power to protect themselves. They are unable to find actions that benefit themselves, and are victimized to the benefit of others.
  • Bandits take actions that benefit themselves at the expense of victims.
  • Stupid idiots take actions that benefit neither themselves nor others.

These are value-laden terms so let’s be clear here that neither I nor Cipolla are suggesting that victims, bandits or idiots are not intelligent:

  • No matter how intelligent you are and how many precautions you take, you can be victimized by a bandit or an idiot. Victims are not to blame for their victimization. We’ll come back to this in a moment.
  • Bandits are often very intelligent; they just use their skills to victimize others. Whether that’s because they are genuinely not intelligent enough to make a living helping others, or because they are that intelligent but psychologically enjoy being a bandit, or are bandits for other reasons, it doesn’t matter for our purposes. Assume that bandits are extremely intelligent and devious, but motivated by gain.
  • Idiots, ironically, are often very intelligent; a great many idiots have fancy degrees from excellent colleges. As Cipolla points out in his paper, there is no characteristic that identifies idiots other than their inability to act in a way that benefits anyone including themselves. That includes intelligence or lack thereof.

Some key consequences of this model have been on my mind these last few days:

  • Bandits, even the psychopaths, are motivated by self-interest and recognize actions that benefit themselves. You can reason with a bandit, but more importantly, you can reason about a bandit, and therefore you can make use of a bandit. You can make an offer to a powerful bandit and count on them to take it up if it maximizes their gain.
  • You cannot reason with an idiot. You can’t negotiate with them to anyone’s advantage because they will take positions that harm themselves at the same time as they harm others. There are no “useful idiots”; any attempt to use an idiot to benefit yourself will backfire horribly as they manage to find a way for everyone to lose.
  • When the idiots are in power, there is no bright line separating the smart from the victims; rather, there is just a spectrum of more or less power and privilege. Victims by definition lack the power to defend themselves, and the more privileged have no lever to pull to change the course of the idiot, who will act with such brazen disregard for the well-being of everyone including themself that it is hard to devise a strategy.

All this is by way of introduction to say: the position that I am seeing on Twitter and in the media that “soon” is a good time to “re-start the economy” is without question the stupidest, most idiotic position I have ever heard of in my life and that includes “let’s invade Afghanistan for no strategic purpose with no plan on how to ever leave”. There is no way that ends well for anyone, and that includes the billionaires who are temporarily inconvenienced by a slight dip in the flow of cash into their coffers.

I’ll leave you with how Cipolla finishes his essay, because it sums up exactly how I feel at this moment in history.

In a country which is moving downhill […] one notices among those in power an alarming proliferation of the bandits with overtones of stupidity and among those not in power an equally alarming growth in the number of helpless individuals. Such change in the composition of the non-stupid population inevitably strengthens the destructive power of the stupid fraction and makes decline a certainty. And the country goes to Hell.

18 thoughts on “Bandits, victims and idiots

  1. Hi Eric,

    For ‘ can be victimized by a bandit or an idiot’ you could add ‘ can be victimized by a bandit, a smart and powerful or an idiot’

    Thanks enjoyed the read!

    • The “powerful smart people” – or “intelligent” as Cipolla classifies them – will not cause others harm, according to the definition in the paper. They benefit themselves and cause the other party to benefit as well.

      Just like you, I’ve enjoyed the read. A lovely small book.

      • Cipolla is of course exaggerating somewhat for comic effect. In reality, the intelligent harm victims all the time, because unfortunately our society is structured by bandits who have made it almost impossible to not do so.

        The charming sitcom “The Good Place” made this the centerpiece of their last couple of seasons: there is virtually no action we can take, no matter how well-intentioned, that doesn’t cause harm to the environment, that doesn’t support institutional racism or mass incarceration or sweatshops in China or any number of other harms, no matter how much we try to be good to one another.

        It’s upsetting and depressing and I hate to be such a downer, but without recognizing these key facts, we’re not going to have any chance to restructure things to be better.

        • there is virtually no action we can take, no matter how well-intentioned, that doesn’t cause harm to the environment, that doesn’t support institutional racism or mass incarceration or sweatshops in China or any number of other harms, no matter how much we try to be good to one another

          Aw shucks, it’s almost as if Calvinist doctrines are alive and well. Ever read Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741)?

          Yea, on the contrary, justice calls aloud for an infinite punishment of their sins. Divine justice says of the tree that brings forth such grapes of Sodom, “Cut it down, why cumbereth it the ground?” Luke 13:7. The sword of divine justice is every moment brandished over their heads, and it is nothing but the hand of arbitrary mercy, and God’s mere will, that holds it back.

  2. Thanks for sharing that. Definitely food for thought. That said, I am skeptical of any type of analysis such as this which attempts to categorize society into a small number of discrete components, and Cipolla’s is no exception.

    That said, for the sake of argument, let’s presume it holds. My biggest concern in the current environment is the assumption made in a statement like this:

    ““soon” is a good time to “re-start the economy” is without question the stupidest, most idiotic position I have ever heard of in my life and that includes “let’s invade Afghanistan for no strategic purpose with no plan on how to ever leave”. There is no way that ends well for anyone, and that includes the billionaires who are temporarily inconvenienced by a slight dip in the flow of cash into their coffers.”

    In particular, while I think at this point we’ve made our bed and it’s time to lie in it — failing to commit to the current course of action and winding up having done some blend of two disparate options is likely worse than having done one thing or another — I take issue with the fact that, as far as I can tell, no one has done an actual economic analysis of the options.

    There are clear hazards to allowing the pandemic to spread, in terms of people’s health. But bringing the entire world to a halt also has impacts on people’s health, and likely will do so for years to come. It frustrated me greatly to see the hundreds of billions of dollars, now trillions of dollars, thrown at the “terrorist problem” after 9/11, when the actual economic damages even the 9/11 attacks (undoubtedly by far the most costly, and as well least likely to recur terrorist action we’ve seen) pale in comparison to what we wound up spending, as well as the harm to civil liberties we’ve suffered since.

    I wouldn’t spend $10 million on security to protect a $1 million house, and yet that’s what we did after 9/11.

    Now, in that case there’s a “funny money” aspect to the whole thing. Ignoring for a moment the loss of quality of life society suffered (at least, those not wealthy enough to bypass the problem), having the government spend all that money probably had a positive effect on the overall economy. But we could have achieved the same or better economic gain through other means: infrastructure improvements (transportation, telecommunications, etc.), education, health care, and food/nutrition to name the key components of a healthy society.

    The two biggest problems with the current situation is that society is reacting from a position of fear, with the same attitude that cost us so much after 9/11: that saving even a single human life is worth whatever the cost, no matter what else we could have used that money for.

    Call me a misanthrope if you like, but I don’t see it that way. As a society, we need to be looking out for the greatest good for society as a whole. If saving a million people today is going to cost the lives of one and a half million tomorrow, that’s not a good choice.

    And then there’s the confounding effect of Cipolla’s bandits. An economist could look at the situation today and even determine that we are saving lives in the long run in spite of the economic harm done to the most vulnerable in society today. But we can see the machinations of the bandits already, wherein the legislation purportedly meant to protect everyone is heavily tilted in favor of the people least in need of it. In the long run this will only strengthen the position of the bandits, and further perpetuate the suffering of the victims.

    So please forgive me, if I remain unconvinced that the best course of action right now was to institute a near-complete shutdown of the worldwide economy, when we might have rather taken less drastic steps to protect the most vulnerable (the elderly and already-sick), while still allowing most economic activity to continue. *Maybe* it was. But I haven’t seen any evidence that anyone actually took the time to think it through. Instead, it’s all been based on “oh, we can’t have people die!”, ignoring the fact that a) many people are going to die anyway in spite of the efforts, b) many other people are going to die *because* of the efforts, and c) a person dying isn’t necessarily the worst thing that can happen to a society.

    At this point though, I agree that we need to see it through, and hope for the best. However, we also must remain *vigilant* and do everything we can to make sure that the bandits don’t, as they usually do, take advantage of the situation and use mechanisms intended to benefit the victims, to instead line their own pockets and in so doing, guarantee the harm to society that otherwise was simply theoretical.

    • If we look at South Korea, Singapore, Germany, and other similar countries we see that they used a combination of competence, early detection, mass testing, and compliance with sensible policies in order to manage the spread early, flatten the curve, and life continues with only minor interruptions. That was the best course of action! Some countries did take it! Pandemics are the result of weak societies, not weak immune systems.

      The leadership of the United States could have done the same, but instead the bandits chose to trade on insider knowledge while reassuring constituents that there was nothing to fear, and the idiots made the cynical and (as always) self-defeating calculation that deliberately misleading everyone would be to their benefit at election time.

      The question then, unfortunately, is what to do now that we’re in a cleft stick devised by idiots and bandits. There are no good choices, but “massively increase the rate of infection at the moment hospitals are *starting* to become overwhelmed” is unbelievably idiotic. As Cipolla points out, you will always be surprised by the number of idiots and the depth of their idiocy. He’s right. I’m surprised.

      • As I’ve noted, we’re at a point where I agree the right course is to stay hunkered down (i.e. “see it through”). But we had alternatives a month ago that could have achieved much the same result, without the same economic effect.

        And yes some other societies have handled things differently, as we could have. But it’s a mistake to think that what succeeded in e.g. South Korea and especially Singapore could ever have been accomplished here. For better or worse, the US is rife with a strong sense of selfishness and lack of cohesiveness, in large part created by the last several decades of dysfunctional political discourse, but also somewhat informed by more fundamental aspects of our system, designed specifically to protect against authoritarian inclinations, which preclude deep surveillance of citizens needed in order to control the outbreak.

        Which is not to say that our government handled it well. They very much did not, and for the reasons you give. Even without tracking every sick person, the utter lack of significant testing alone was a huge factor, and easily avoidable by a government doing their job.

        I am also distressed to see the IMHO very reasonable position that a full-blown economic analysis would do a better job guiding our decisions than just following our fears, has been contorted by many recently, by cherry-picking statistical assumptions, such as what the value of an individual’s life actually is, to justify the idea that we should prop the wealthiest parts of the economy up while still allowing people to die. That’s very much not at all what I’m arguing in favor of, and it’s a tragic distortion of the idea.

        At the end of the day, we are where we are, and the worst thing we could do is go back on the decision now. Having started the process of keeping everything shut down for some indefinite period of time, it’s important to follow through on that. I’d just have preferred that such a path had been taken with more conscious thought and less knee-jerk.

        • As a german, I would like to tell you that the minor interruptions are not minor at all. Public life is at a standstill, schools and most shops have closed. The economic damage will dwarf everything this side of 1945. But what is the alternative? We would face a million or so dead, even more for you.
          The difference is that we have strong medical and social nets which will cushion the economic problems of most people and further strong measures are done.
          Whereas Trump is flailing and has the intellectual capacity of a cunning mean goldfish. That’s great for a TV show host (we have our share, look up Heidi Klum for example), but not for a President.
          There can be a valid point be made that fast and painful is better than long and agonizing, but Trump will choose neither and excarbate both deads and economic damage.

          • Thanks for noting that societies elsewhere were in fact disrupted, and did not suffer merely “minor interruptions”. That’s an important point.

            With respect to this:

            “The difference is that we have strong medical and social nets which will cushion the economic problems of most people”

            And a key difference that is! Unfortunately, here in the US, we have no such safety nets. Indeed, we have a powerful ruling class that works very hard not just to avoid improving safety nets, but to actually remove what minimal safety nets we’ve created in the past.

            Unfortunately, it means that what other nations do to address the pandemic is not necessarily a good model for what will result in the least long-term harm for the residents of the US.

            “We would face a million or so dead, even more for you.”

            In evaluating competing choices for responses, it’s important to keep in mind that even with the more drastic options available to each country, we still face large numbers of people dying from the virus (as in, still millions). The responses will mitigate, but certainly not even come close to eliminating all of the deaths we otherwise face. It is a sad fact of life, and one that’s important to keep in mind as we choose one harm over another.

            It seems we have the worst of all worlds here in the US with respect to the pandemic: we waited too long to intervene; our interventions are necessarily limited as compared to how a more-authoritarian government is able to do; we don’t have any built-in mechanism to restore economic health once these interventions are no longer needed; and in the crisis, the bandits will use the urgency of the situation to push through “recovery” strategies that further improve their standing, while further weakening the already-long-suffering lower- and middle-class.

            In other words, we *could* take this opportunity to implement good safety nets, but the more likely outcome is that those in power will weaken our already minimal safety nets further, increasing harm further as compared to the “keep things going” option.

            (Long rant about the poor prospects for the US’s future as a nation deleted…not relevant enough, and too depressing even for this conversation. Suffice to say, I remain unconvinced that we Americans will be able to take the reins back from the ruling class, at least via our current, democratic process. I’m try to be hopeful — to lose hope altogether would be unbearable — but am pessimistic about the realistic chances of such an outcome.)

  3. I’ve been reading Eric’s blog for years, and I enjoy both the content and the comments. People who visit this blog are very smart. In the context of this thread post, I really appreciate the heart ache you all share.

    Working as a software developer, I’m more fortunate than most. I can still generate an income working from home so long as our clients have the means for work to be done. It’s a huge cascading cycle of economic uncertainty. Here in Australia we’re working in voluntary isolation from home, however, this will turn mandatory any day.

    The implications of a full lock down is mind boggling. Jobs are already being lost, the less fortunate will struggle. Many will end up desperate on the street – starving even, despite what politicians promise.

    I have no faith in politicians as we go through this pandemic, but I do have faith in people. Here in Australia we have had terrible drought lasting many years and city folk started sponsoring cattle at $1000 a head to help farmers. We’ve gone through the worst bush fires in history and the community lifts and makes a huge difference. The international donations and help has been incredible, both with monetary donations and actual fire fighters from both the US and Canada.

    I say Australian, but I really consider myself an international with faith in our global humanity. No borders, no people – who care about our world and all creatures that inhabit it. I can’t see current politics fixing any of this. We need a movement generated by the people. History has done this before.

    Voting in Australia is compulsory. Would it make a difference if the same in US and England? I’m not sure. We need a strong leader. We have had strong leaders before.

  4. where are altruistic people? this seems to lump them in with “victims”. it seems that victims would involuntarily benefit others at their own expense, whereas altruistics would benefit others at their own expense _voluntarily_.

    in real life, except maybe in extreme cases, almost everyone belongs to all of these groups all of the time. it is the actions we take that fall in these groups, not actual individuals. you word your conclusion this way in fact: “the stupidest … *position* I have ever heard”.

    I can’t argue with your conclusion, but you didn’t really make an argument for it anyway. you merely asserted that it’s stupid and that it can’t end well. ok.

    • FWIW, I think altruism can be found in any of the “victim”, “idiot”, and “smart” categories (and even technically in the “bandit”, even if one wouldn’t expect it to be expressed there). I haven’t read the book, so I can speak only from what was shared here, but I have the impression that altruism simply isn’t on the axes described, just as any number of human behaviors are not. Instead, it’s an ancillary feature. Smart+powerful people are able to exercise their altruism in a global way; victims may be able to exercise it locally — sharing a meal with someone for example; idiots will try to exercise altruism, but may do more harm than good. Bandits probably will never exercise altruism, but even if they do, it’s not going to change their fundamental categorization.

      As you note, the categories aren’t really as black & white as described anyway. This is a common limitation of any analysis that attempts to categorize human behavior (e.g. Meyer-Briggs). Real human beings just don’t line themselves up in nice, orderly rows and columns like that. But I think that doesn’t necessarily make the categories invalid. One just needs to be careful about conclusions one draws from them. And when applied to large groups of people at a time, instead of individuals, the categories may have genuine predictive powers. It might not be Asimov’s psychohistory exactly, but it does seem like a useful framework in which to ponder society’s boons and ills.

      I think the biggest problem with Eric’s conclusion is the over-generalization: “There is no way that ends well for anyone”. Estimates I’ve seen indicate that if we do nothing, around 70% of the population will wind up infected eventually. Well, what about those other 30%? From their point of view, everything’s pretty great. Maybe minor interruptions here and there as people get sick, but as long as they themselves remain healthy, the overloaded health care system isn’t going to bother them. And because the whole ideas of universal sick leave and health care in the US are non-existent, basic infrastructure will stumble along, albeit at a reduced efficiency, as sick people force themselves to keep going to work and getting things done.

      I’m not saying that that scenario is anywhere close to the best “greater good” we could hope for. But I think it’s safe to say that even in the worst-case scenario, there will be *some* people who wind up without any significant harm. That’s just the luck of the draw.

      • The scope of the descriptors would seem to be: benefits/hurts self and benefits/hurts others, creating 4 possibilities. The problem is that benefits other/hurts self has been assumed to always be involuntary. In other words, benefits other/hurts self is not necessarily victimization. I don’t see how altruism could fall in the other categories except maybe Intelligent, unless you’re talking about intent rather than the actual outcome. Idiotic actions (hurts self/hurts others) are not altruistic unless they had altruistic intent but idiotic outcome.

        The danger is always in judging groups of people based on their supposed group affiliation and properties of the supposed group. That is discrimination by definition.

        The categories are valid when applied to actions rather than groups of people (and if we don’t assume voluntary benefit to others at one’s own expense is victimization).

        Another issue with the conclusion is that it seems to miss that this is a dilemma. This is perhaps among the largest lose/lose situations of all time. Choosing B from options A and B isn’t “idiotic” if both choices are equally lousy and there’s no favorable choice C.

        As a disclaimer, note that I do think it probably is a terrible decision. It does seem to be a case of “oops, we better get the money machine turning again; lives lost aren’t worth as much as the money”.

        (Note that this virus has at least a 2-4% death rate, maybe more… that’s 6-12 million dead Americans, maybe more, if you just let if burn through the population… and that’s not including those who barely recover… this is going to be bad enough with quarantine, it will be horrendous without it. But I don’t see a good way out either.)

        • You seem to define altruism differently than I do. I don’t see “harm self” as a requirement for acting altruistically. Your definition is in line with the *biological/zoological* use of the term, but not the *colloquial* use that I use in day-to-day conversation, which is simply acting for the benefit of others without any specific personal gain.

          I guess that just goes to show, best to make sure everyone’s using the same words the same way, before trying to solve the world’s problems. 🙂

          As far as the decision-making goes: it’s important to understand that, at least in the US, in no plausible scenario do we actually “flatten the curve” to *at or below* the actual capacity of our health care system. The goal is to minimize the rate of new cases, as compared to the “do nothing” scenario, but it’s a bad outcome no matter what. This includes being cognizant of the fact that we may be able to reduce the total number of deaths somewhat, perhaps by as much as 50% if we’re really lucky, but that still leaves millions of people dead.

          Maybe. Unfortunately, we *still* don’t have a very good handle on mortality rate. Better data comes from places like South Korea where they’ve done a *huge* amount of testing, but even there, it’s hard to tease apart correlations as well as to take into account infected-but-now-healthy individuals that aren’t part of the data set.

          We’ll know for sure. In a year or two, after the initial emergency is over. For now, we do the best we can.

          • the word “altruism” doesn’t matter. I’m objecting to the snuck-in parameter voluntary/involuntary which was necessary in order to describe benefit other/hurt self as victimization. involuntary benefit other/hurt self might be victimization, but voluntary benefit other/hurt self is not, and might be called “altruism”, though that doesn’t make the term exhaustive. benefit other/benefit self could have either altruistic OR selfish intent, for example.

            so, that’s at least four key issues with the model:
            – it groups people rather than actions
            – it sneaks-in/hides voluntariness in order to spin one category in a particular direction
            – it ignores intent
            – it ignores dilemmas

            it seems that the model is woefully inadequate and is probably only good for pushing personal political agendas rather than giving an impartial and predictive view of the world.

    • “in real life, except maybe in extreme cases, almost everyone belongs to all of these groups all of the time. it is the actions we take that fall in these groups, not actual individuals.”

      I had come to the comment section in order to write exactly that.

      People are complex things; those who attach value judgments to a person instead of his/her actions are condemned to spend more time in the ranks of the victims (when they trust that every deal a person will propose to them will always be in their best interests because they think that person is “good”) and/or of the idiots (when they think the opposite.)

      Also, people who rant about this are convinced they belong to the ranks of the smart and maybe, sometimes, of the victims, but never of one of the other two groups. My experience has taught me very well that we can’t judge ourselves; we’re the least suited people for that. I’ve come to a point where I automatically disregard any explicit or implicit value judgement one makes about him/herself, and whenever someone slaps a judgmental label on someone else, especially an entire, large and undefined group of people, s/he’s doing just that, albeit implicitly and indirectly.

      So, I’m sorry, Mr. Lippert, but there are no stupid people. They’re a figment of our imagination when we want to feel superior. Only stupid actions do, and every single one of us has committed them during the course of his/her life.

  5. There are no “useful idiots”; any attempt to use an idiot to benefit yourself will backfire horribly as they manage to find a way for everyone to lose.

    Maybe.

    But think about a bandit who might take an action to benefit himself at the expense of others. But the benefit to himself, the bandit, is not really a benefit, as viewed by anyone other than the bandit.

    Perhaps a bandit is willing to endure some pain (e.g. loss of income in the short-term, uncertainty about the future, etc) when using an idiot? What if you could use an idiot who will take actions to benefit no one, by recognizing the magnitude of the disservice to everyone but the bandit using the idiot is very large, whereas the magnitude of the disservice to the user of the idiot is very small?

    And what if this calculation performed by the bandit has a perceived manageable time-frame for when actions will materialize?

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