Carlo M. Cipolla

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Carlo M. Cipolla
Born(1922-08-15)August 15, 1922
DiedSeptember 5, 2000(2000-09-05) (aged 78)
FieldEconomic history
Alma materUniversity of Pavia
University of Paris
London School of Economics

Carlo M. Cipolla (August 15, 1922 – September 5, 2000) was an Italian economic historian.


As a young man, Cipolla wanted to teach history and philosophy in an Italian high school, and therefore enrolled at the political science faculty at the University of Pavia. While a student there, thanks to professor Franco Borlandi, a specialist in medieval economic history, he discovered his passion for economic history. He graduated from Pavia in 1944. Subsequently he studied at the University of Paris and the London School of Economics.

Cipolla obtained his first teaching post in economic history in Catania at the age of 27. This was to be the first stop in a long academic career in Italy (Venice, Turin, Pavia, Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa and Fiesole) and abroad. In 1953 Cipolla left for the United States as a Fulbright fellow and in 1957 became a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Two years later he obtained a full professorship.


Cipolla produced two essays on economics, circulated (in English) among friends in 1973 and 1976, then published in 1988 (in Italian) under the title Allegro, ma non troppo ("Forward, but not too fast" or "Happy, but not too much", from the musical phrase meaning "Quickly, but not too quick").

The first essay, "The Role of Spices (and Black Pepper in Particular) in Medieval Economic Development" ("Il ruolo delle spezie (e del pepe nero in particolare) nello sviluppo economico del Medioevo", 1973), traces the curious correlations between spice import and population expansion in the late Middle Ages, postulating a causation due to a supposed aphrodisiac effect of black pepper.

The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity (1976)[edit]

Graph with the benefits and losses that an individual causes to him or herself and causes to others.

The second essay, "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity" ("Le leggi fondamentali della stupidità umana", 1976),[1][2][3] explores the controversial subject of stupidity. Stupid people are seen as a group, more powerful by far than major organizations such as the Mafia and the industrial complex, which without regulations, leaders or manifesto nonetheless manages to operate to great effect and with incredible coordination.

These are Cipolla's five fundamental laws of stupidity:

  1. Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  2. The probability that a certain person (will) be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
  3. A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.
  5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

Corollary: a stupid person is more dangerous than a pillager.

As is evident from the third law, Cipolla identifies two factors to consider when exploring human behaviour:

  • Benefits and losses that an individual causes to him or herself.
  • Benefits and losses that an individual causes to others.

By creating a graph with the first factor on the x-axis and the second on the y-axis, we obtain four groups of people, with an additional category (ineffectual people) either existing in its own right or drawn from the members of each previous category whose position with respect to both axes is least extreme:

Helpless people
contribute to society but are taken advantage of by it (and especially by the "bandit" sector of it); note, however, that extreme altruists and pacifists may willingly and consciously (rather than helplessly) accept a place in this category for moral or ethical reasons
Intelligent people
contribute to society and who leverage their contributions into reciprocal benefits
Stupid people
whose efforts are counterproductive to both their and others' interests
pursue their own self-interest even when doing so poses a net detriment to societal welfare

Cipolla further refines his definition of "bandits" and "naive people" by noting that members of these groups can either add to or detract from the general welfare, depending on the relative gains (or losses) that they cause themselves and society. A bandit may enrich himself more or less than he impoverishes society, and a naive person may enrich society more or less than he impoverishes himself and/or allows himself to be impoverished. Graphically, this idea is represented by a line of slope -1, which bisects the second and fourth quadrants and intersects the y-axis at the origin. The naive people to the left of this line are thus "semi-stupid" because their conduct creates/allows a net drain of societal welfare; some bandits may fit this description as well, although many bandits such as sociopaths, psychopaths, and non-pathological "jerks" and amoralists may act with full knowledge of the net negative consequences to a society that they neither identify with nor care about.



  • Studi di Storia della Moneta (1948)
  • Mouvements monétaires dans l'Etat de Milan (1951)
  • Money, Prices and Civilization (1956)
  • Le avventure della lira (1958)
  • Storia dell'economia italiana: Saggi di storia economica (1959)
  • Economic History of World Population (1962)
  • Guns, Sails, and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion, 1400–1700 (1965)
  • Clocks and Culture, 1300–1700 (1967), reissued 2003, with an introduction by Anthony Grafton
  • Literacy and Development in the West (1969)
  • The economic decline of empires (1970)
  • European culture and overseas expansion (1970)
  • Economic History of Europe (1973)
  • Faith, Reason, and the Plague in Seventeenth-Century Tuscany (1977)
  • The technology of man: A visual history (1980)
  • Fighting the Plague in Seventeenth Century Italy (1981)
  • The Monetary Policy of Fourteenth Century Florence (1982)
  • Allegro ma non troppo (1988)
  • Between Two Cultures: An Introduction to Economic History (1992)
  • Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy, 1000–1700 (1994)


  1. ^ Cipolla, Carlo M. "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity". The Cantrip Corpus. Archived from the original on February 16, 2013. Retrieved 28 July 2013.
  2. ^ Abrahams, Marc (9 April 2012). "Improbable Research: the laws of human stupidity". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 July 2013. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals, it seems – this is one of the laws of human stupidity
  3. ^ Cipolla, Carlo M. (Spring 1987). "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity". Whole Earth Review. Retrieved 28 July 2013.

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