When Stupid People Rule

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, was wrong. He may have been a great and holy man, but he was terribly wrong. While awaiting execution by the Nazis, I imagine he must have thought about this matter very deeply before writing, in Letters and Papers from Prison, these bitter words in his prison cell: 

Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed—in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical—and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for when dealing with a stupid person than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.

But he was wrong. Nearly every line contains a contestable point. For example, “One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force.” Not so. Think about the most recent protesters in Iran and China. The evil in those two nations will not, in the end, be prevented. It may be overturned, but without good foundations, those dictatorships will be only replaced by some other evil—just as the Soviet Union fell, only to be replaced by a different tyrant and his oligarchs.

The key to the issue is that Bonhoeffer was speaking about people—not theories about people, but the genuine article. People can be stupid about one thing and terribly clever about another. In fact, that is the way most people are. The cartoon example of this, the mathematical genius who can’t tie his shoes, is closer to the reality of what people are than the notion of someone who is simply and thoroughly stupid for his faults.

Defending Bonhoeffer by saying that he was generalizing doesn’t wash. The last line there is, “Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.” Really? And how do we determine where the line is that separates the stupid part of the man from his genius? The master carpenter who is antisemitic? The good and caring mother who hates black people? The great teacher who is a socialist?

We all generalize. Bonhoeffer was clearly trying to make a point, but he made it badly. If stupid people are irredeemable, what then is the reason for education? Were we born this way and thus forever cast in the mold of an Aldous Huxley nightmare such as Brave New World, or can we alter our behavior? For the religious, what is the purpose of redemption? Why should we bother to correct our mistakes? Perhaps all we can really expect, in the end, is to be less wrong.

As a group, the stupidest people I have ever heard—outside of Hollywood—are politicians. And the distinctive flavor of their stupidity is that of wanting to do well by doing good. The majority of them, having never earned an honest living themselves, will rise up to tell us to spend money we do not have, in a recession, to help some “disadvantaged” group (of their choosing, of course). Thus we send unaccountable billions to Ukraine or subsidize illegal immigration while millions of Americans are already out of work, or deplete our oil reserves while reducing our oil supply. At least the actors are righteous in their stupidity. But some of them are damn good actors.

Most of those politicians we deplore will be reelected. By us. Why should they change their tune? Are we the stupid ones, voting over and over again and expecting a different result? Now that the current mechanism for stealing elections has been tried and proven, what makes anyone believe that there will be a different result next time?

Given my natural limitations as an admittedly stupid person, the only answer I can see is that by trying to change the result, legally and fairly, we may learn how it can be done, and, secondly, that the woke Left and socialists will finally fail by succeeding. Just as the Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight, China will also fail (it’s failing even now) and, not incidentally, just as the attempted socialist takeover of the United States during the 1930s failed when the nation was confronted by an outside enemy.

Not so stupidly then, as so well described in Freedom’s Forge by Arthur Herman, our industrial might was marshaled during World War II by the Fords and the Chryslers, by Boeing and Lockheed, Kaiser and Republic Steel and a thousand other companies that turned their energies to the parts that made our victory whole. The socialist and command economies of Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union just didn’t work. Socialism won’t work any better today, even if a new generation is taught yet again by stupid professors (who may also be good husbands, or fathers, or fly fishermen) that the real problem is that it wasn’t done the right way before. The time will come again, however briefly, when we have some of our freedom back.

“Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer said. I’m inclined to agree with him about that until I happen to look in a mirror. We are, at least to a large degree, a nation of stupid people. We don’t seem to learn from our mistakes for very long, and we constantly prove our stupidity by passing laws to protect ourselves from ourselves. 

So how do we deal with our own stupidity while trying to survive the stupidity of others? Obviously, we have to limit the authority of stupid people over our own lives. A bunch of new laws isn’t going to do the trick. The laws are too often made by stupid people who have found comfortable elective sinecures working in the government, responding to the demands of other stupid people who don’t want to take care of themselves. The laws are too often enforced by stupid people who enjoy the power they have been given—in reality, rules are made and enforced by bureaucrats who have been given blank checks by committees of elected officials too corrupt and lazy to do their own work.

No one reads any of the millions of pages of laws and regulations until a decision has been made to prosecute. A “fair and speedy” trial can take years, so a stupid alternative to justice has been formulated. The “plea bargain” represents our ready acceptance of lesser evil. Win or lose, you’ve lost. To say we are a government of laws is a bad joke. Which ones? We are now a nation of politics, which is simply the religion of stupid people. Whichever political party is in power gets to wield the laws they wish to enforce. That, at least, is a common point of view.

But giving up, as so many stupid people have already done (half the electorate has not voted in our national elections for many years), is clearly no answer at all. Better to do something and perhaps fail and learn (even temporarily) than to do nothing at all. That has worked a few times before. The foundation stones have long been set in place. There, at least, we have something to build upon. Otherwise, Bonhoeffer was right, the stupid people will rule, and we are just awaiting our execution.

About Vincent McCaffrey

Vincent McCaffrey is a novelist and bookseller. Visit his website at www.vincentmccaffrey.com.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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