After several developments there is
a book in English
(as well as in Italian and Spanish)


The Stupidity of Power

Part Three of  “The Power of Stupidity”

(Part 1 and Part 2 are online)

by Giancarlo Livraghi

April 2002
(partly updated in December 2006)

disponibile anche in italiano
disponible también en español

I wrote the first draft of this paper in October, 1997. It remained unfinished for over four years. I was running into the same sort of problem that Walter Pitkin faced in 1934 when he published his “Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity” (see The power of Stupiditypart 1.)
Every time I went to work on it there were several examples of the Stupidity of Power. In the events of the day – or in some part of recent or remote history.
Concentrating on any of those examples meant getting into the awesome complications of serious and tragic events – or of circumstances that are very likely to lead to disaster and are not being effectively managed ahead of time. Too complex to be discussed effectively in what must be a short document. Too difficult to be explained without deep studies that would take years.
So – I decided to forget the examples and the facts, and to stay with the general theory. Which, I hope, is basically simple and clear – though unfortunately it doesn’t offer any easy solution.

The essence of stupidology is an attempt to explain why things don’t work – and how much of that is due to human stupidity, which is the cause of most of our problems. And even when the cause is not stupidity we make the consequences much worse by being stupid in how we react or try to fix the problem.

Essentially, this analysis is diagnostic, not therapeutic. The idea is that, if we understand how stupidity works, we may be able to control its effects a little better. It’s impossible to defeat it altogether, because it’s part of human nature. But its effects can be significantly reduced by knowing it’s there, and understanding how it works – and thusnot being caught by total surprise.

I’ve discussed this, to a limited extent, in The Power of Stupidity.  (As all stupidologists know, the subject is so vast that such short comments can only scratch the surface; but if I’ve been able to prompt readers to think about it, that is the biggest achievement I could possibly imagine.)

The stupidity of every single human being is a large enough problem. But the picture changes when we consider the stupidity of people who have “power” – that is, control over the destiny of other people.

As in the first two parts, I shall continue to follow the concept of defining stupidity, intelligence etc. by the effects of human behavior. But there are substantial differences when the relationship is not of equals. One person, or a small group of people, can influence the life and wellbeing of many more. That changes the cause-and-effect relations in the system.

Power, large and small

Power is everywhere. We are all subject to someone else’s power and (except perhaps in the case of extreme slavery) we all exert power on others. Personally, I loathe the concept, but it’s part of life. Parents have (or are supposed to have) power over their children, but children have a great deal of power over their parents, which they often use quite ruthlessly. We may be “owners” of cats and dogs, horses or hamsters, elephants or camels, sailboats or cars, phones or computers, but quite often we are subject to their power.

It would be far too complicated, for the sake of this subject, to get into the intricacy of human relations. Therefore I shall concentrate on the most obvious cases of “power”: those situations where someone has a defined role of authority over a large (or small) number of people.

In theory, we all tend to agree that there should be as little power as possible, and that people in power should be subject to control by the rest of the people. We call that “democracy.”  Or, in organizations, we call it leadership, motivation, distributed responsibility, sharing and personal empowerment – as opposed to authority, bureaucracy, centralization or formal discipline.

But there are relatively few people who want real freedom. Responsibility is a burden. It’s quite convenient to be “followers.”  To let rulers, bosses, “opinion leaders”, gurus of all sorts, movie stars and television “personalities” set the pace and do the thinking – and put the blame on them if we’re unhappy.

On the other hand, there is a somewhat special breed of people who enjoy power. Because they are so dedicated to the substantial effort and sacrifice needed to gain large power, they prevail.

We must assume that the general concept applies: there are just as many stupid people in power as there are in the rest of humanity, and there are always more than we think. But two things are different: the relationship and the attitude.

The power of power

People in power are more powerful that other people. That isn’t as obvious as it sounds. One might argue that this is not always so. There are apparently powerful people with less real influence than some who are much less visible. But for the sake of this discussion we must stay away from that problem. Regardless of how and why actual power is held and used, this is about real power. The uneven relationship caused by the fact that some people have a stronger influence on circumstances than others – and in many situations a few people can do good or harm to many.

A basic, and quite obvious, criterion is that the effect of behavior must be measured not by the yardstick of whoever does something, but from the other end – the point of view of whoever is subject to the effects of that person’s acts (or lack of action.)  The clear result of this basic concept is a drastic shift in the Cartesian coordinates (see Part One. The harm (or good) is much larger, depending on the number of people involved and the impact of actions and decisions.

If a person in an “equal” relationship gains as much personal advantage as the damage it causes to someone else, the system as a whole remains balanced (as observed in the first oif these articles). But it’s obviously not so when there is a difference in power.

In theory, we could assume that as the percentage of intelligent or stupid people is the same the effect of power will be balanced. But when power deals with large numbers of people the one-to-one relationship is lost. It is much more difficult to listen, to understand, to measure the effect and the perceptions. There is a “Doppler effect”, a shift, leading to an increase of the stupidity factor. All serious studies of power systems (while they are not necessarily based on the notion that power is stupid) point to the need for power separation, and for power conflicts to be formalized to that they don’t lead to violence, in order to avoid “absolute power” (i.e. extreme stupidity.)  That’s a big enough problem to keep us all on constant alert against any exaggerated concentration of power – and to explain why so many things aren’t working as well as they should. But there is more.

The power syndrome

How do people gain power? Sometimes by not even trying. They are entrusted by other people, because other people trust them. They have natural leadership and a sense of responsibility. This process, more often than not, produces “intelligent” power. A situation in which the chosen leaders do good for themselves – and a lot more for others. Sometimes it can lead to deliberate sacrifice, when people do harm to themselves for the benefit of others (if that is done intentionally it doesn’t fall into the “hapless” category because of the moral good, including self perception and the approval of others, gained by the person who deliberately places common good over private interest.)  But there are much fewer examples of such “intelligent power” than we would all like to see. Why?

The reason is that there is competition for power. People who don’t seek power per se, but are more concentrated on doing good for others, have less time and energy to spend on gaining more power – or even holding on to what they have. People who have a greed for power, regardless of its impact on society, concentrate on the struggle for power. Most individuals are placed somewhere between the two extremes of that spectrum, with many different shades and nuances. But the powermongering element is the most aggressive in the power game and therefore it gains more power.

Even people with the most generous initial motivation can be forced, over time, to dedicate more energy to maintaining or increasing power – to the point of losing sight of their original objectives.

Another element, that makes things worse, is megalomania. Power is an addictive drug. People in power are often led to believe that because they have power they are better, smarter, wiser, than ordinary people. They are also surrounded by sycophants, followers and exploiters enhancing that delusion.

Power is sexy. That isn’t just a manner of speech. There is an instinct in the nature of our species that makes powerful people (or people who appear to be powerful) sexually attractive. Though most people playing the power game are too busy with it to be able to have any decent sex – or to care about emotion, affection and love.

People who have or seek power are as just as stupid or intelligent as any average person. They are often quite clever, astute and mischievous. But if we follow the method of measuring intelligence and stupidity by the effect of behavior, not motive or technique, the result is a definite shift, as shown in this graph (“Cartesian coordinates”) where the red arrow is the “power” factor. There is a general deterioration in the system, with a shift from “intelligence” to “stupidity.”


A careful reader may notice that the arrow is on a side.
This is to allow for the fact that a few people
(those in power and their entourage)
gain some advantages – and therefore the shift in the system
is not from the center of the “intelligent” area
to that of the “stupid”
but it leans on the lower right side
crossing the harmful fourth quadrant.

A few more graphs, showing
other possible developments,
are included in a
as a separate file.

The pursuit of power increases the stupidity factor. The impact can be relatively large or small depending on the amount of power (the importance of matters influenced by power and the number of people subject to its effects) and on the intensity of the power struggle.

This is the most relevant, if not the only, exception to a general principle explained in the first part of The Power of Stupidity. It remains true that a person’stupidity “is independent of any other characteristic of that person.”  But power, as a system, is much more stupid than any single “ordinary” person can be.

The problem it that power can be limited, controlled, scrutinized and conditioned – but not eliminated altogether. Humanity needs leaders. Organizations need people who take responsibilities, and those people must have some power to perform their role.

So we’ve got to live with power – and its stupidity. But that doesn’t mean that we must accept it, tolerate it or support it. Power should not be admired, trusted or even respected unless it shows practical intelligence in what it does to us and to the world. As far as I can see, there is no “universal” or standard solution to this problem. But we are half way there if we are aware of it – and if we never allow ourselves to be blinded or seduced by the treacherous glitter of power.

An effective antidote to the stupidity of power
is the ability of some people to make things work
without placing themselves in a “power role”.
As explained in a wonderful little story
written ninety years ago and called  Brown’s Job.


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