Putin & the Laws of Human Stupidity
Analysts prefer objective measures to subjective qualitative factors. Numbers simplify analysis and allow the application of quantifiable standards. Qualitative analyses are tricky by comparison. For example, classifying Mr. Putin is not as objectively simple as it feels. Historically, one person’s brute is another’s conquering leader and international pariahs are sometimes admired as national heroes. In this context, analysts benefit by applying well-defined qualitative analytical methods and standards.
The late historical economist Carlo M. Cipolla conceived a useful qualitative framework first published (1976) in Italian as "Allegro ma non troppo" and later in English (1998) as The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. Dr. Cipolla divided individuals and groups into four quadrants: Helpless, Intelligent, Bandit, and Stupid:
1. Helpless: derive losses through actions that help others gain, i.e., lose-win.
2. Intelligent: derive gains through actions that help others derive gain, i.e., win-win.
3. Bandit: derive gains through actions that cause losses to others, i.e., win-lose.
4. Stupid: cause others and themselves losses while deriving little or no gain, i.e., lose-lose.
Mr. Putin's decision-making doesn't meet the standard for Helpless and Intelligent, but – Is he Bandit or Stupid? The challenge is that Bandit and Stupid are not sharply divided, so an aggressor whose losses mount higher than expected may qualify as Bandit if final gains exceed losses. For Mr. Putin, the Ukraine invasion is incurring losses much larger than he expected, but the final outcome remains in doubt. He may ultimately qualify as a hybrid Stupid-Bandit.
Some of Mr. Putin’s decisions, like playing the nuclear card, fall squarely within the stupid quadrant in creating losses for all sides without offsetting gains. Ditto the Russian military’s targeting and bombarding of civilian areas, which led to charges of war crimes, tougher sanctions, and international social repudiation. Targeting the Chernobyl site and threatening the intentional release of radioactive contaminants gained him nothing and raised his costs through growing calls for war crime investigations.
Mr. Putin’s actions have raised the odds of miscalculations and nuclear war, the ultimate stupid decision. Nuclear conflict would end Russia as a functioning society, cause unimaginable losses across Europe, the US, and beyond, and kill millions of people. No plausible gains could offset the losses.
Where does this analysis leave Mr. Putin? His actions to date have created losses for both sides and gained him little, so they stand him in the Stupid quadrant. His position may shift in the weeks ahead, but the climb to Bandit gets tougher the longer his forces fail to convincingly prevail. In other words, based on Cipolla’s standards, by virtue of his decisions, Mr. Putin sits comfortably in the Stupid quadrant.