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February 28, 2007



In the general election the year before Mill wrote those words, voters split 40-60 Conservative-Whig. Let's assume this represents the proportion of Conservatives in the population.

Quite a bold assumption given the far from universal franchise in operation at the time...


Trouble is, Tim, any bias in this assumption goes the wrong way.
For most Conservatives not to be stupid in Mill's view, Conservatives must outnumber stupid people. This requires that large numbers of non-voters in 1865 were Conservative. This is unlikely to have been the case; the Tories only got 44% of the vote in 1874, after the franchise was extended.


Most Conservatives are stupid. Then again, most Liberals, Whigs, Labourites and Socialists are also stupid.

People, mostly, are stupid. The only saving grace is that, in most cases, their stupidity tends to pull in opposite directions, so more or less cancels itself out.

When this doesn't happen, we get managerialist "The Government ought to do something about X" groupthink, gun control laws, paediatrician lynchings and the like.


Chris -- are you familiar with Carlo M Cipolla's essay "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity"? Cipolla says that... "a stupid person is one who causes damage to self or others without corresponding advantage". His other four laws are:

1. We always underestimate the number of stupid people.

2. The probability of someone being stupid is independent of other characteristics.

3. The 20 per cent of us who are not stupid tend, stupidly, to underestimate the threat posed by the stupid majority.

4. A stupid person is dangerous.

It used to be available on intertubes but copyright 'issues' mean not so now.


Ok now if I have this right:
"On any matter not self-evident, there are ninety-nine persons totally incapable of judging of it, for one who is capable; and the capacity of the hundredth person is only comparative."
Which means 99% of the population of voters are stupid and all conservatives are stupid. Therefore there must have been massive Whig vote rigging to get 40% of the votes from 1% of the population of voters who are not stupid.


Football fans are generally stupid, of course.


I don't like to be argumentative Chris, but all of this slightly undermines your preference for Direct Democracy, doesn't it?


Rob Spear

Stupidity is a positive benefit in government. Clever people will convince themselves that all sorts of complex schemes are true, and then proceed to screw everything up trying to make reality fit in with the scheme. One benefit of the western doctrine of the separation of church and state, before the state did a hostile takeover on the churches proper reponsibilities, was that it kept clever people out of government.

Bob B

"One benefit of the western doctrine of the separation of church and state, before the state did a hostile takeover on the churches proper reponsibilities, was that it kept clever people out of government."

The (possibly alarming) fact is that post-WW2 the academic credentials of those on the front benches in the House of Commons have usually been fairly impressive, at least up to the end of the 1980s. It's perhaps also worth recalling that the two main parties spent almost equal periods in government, counting from the beginning of the Attlee government in July 1945 through to the election of the first Thatcher government in May 1979.

Remember Butskellism, the term that journalists applied to the broad consensus between the government and opposition on the fundamentals of economic policy in the 1950s and early 1960s?

On his retirement from politics, RA Butler was appointed Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Hugh Gaitskell, before taking up wartime appointments had been head of the department of political economy at University College, London.

tom s.

I see that, predictably and despite the large proportion of stupid people we all agree are out there, none of us are willing to admit to being stupid.

Mark Wadsworth

Call me stupid, but who is John Stuart Mill?


This post is stupid. It's just an attempt to insult Conservatives. (Not that I care to defend them.)

As Steve points out, Mill said 99% of people are stupid. And, as Sam mentioned, you'll find just as many stupid Lib Dems and Labour voters as stupid Conservatives.

So clearly direct democracy is bad, because we'd be ruled by stupid people. So perhaps we should be looked after by an intelligent benevolent ruling class? How about a bunch of managerialist Labour twats? Or perhaps the Conservatives that Chris hates so much?

The only solution is to prevent stupid people (and indeed anyone) from meddling in everyone else's lives.


But the second quote is open to differing interpretations, and I think most of you have plumped for the wrong one. Mill says that 99% of people are incapable of judging any given issue, but is this because they lack the requisite intelligence or because they lack the requisite knowledge? And how broad are the issues? I'd wager that >99% of the population, including me, is unfit to judge whether a Bianchi is a better bike than a Cannondale. Does that make us stupid? (Open goal ahoy!)

It makes far more sense to interpret Mill as saying that 99% of people aren't well-informed enough to judge specific, complex issues, than to have him say that 99% of people are doomed from birth to make the wrong decisions throughout their lives. The first reading -- "Show some epistemic humility, people!" -- is a justification of classical liberalism; the second -- "Everyone is screwed unless we, the elite, show them the way" -- justifies conservative paternalism.

Christopher G D Tipper

Some clarification for your readers.

We'll need Bayes theorem:

p(A|B) = p(B|A)p(A) / p(B)


What we require is to set p(S|C) that is the probability that a Conservative is stupid and vary p(C|S) that is the probability that stupid person is Conservative and relate that to p(S).

p(C|S) = p(S|C)p(C) / p(S)
=> p(S) = p(S|C)p(C) / p(C|S)

Assume that there is a 50% chance that a Conservative is stupid.

"generally" being 50% or more implies that
p(S) = 0.5 * 0.4 / 0.5 = 0.4 or 40%

"generally" being 75% or more implies that
p(S) = 0.5 * 0.4 / 0.75 = 26.7%

In fact it is possible to calculate using Bayes technique that if there is a 99% chance that someone is stupid, then there is only a 30.3% chance that they are Conservative, if one assumes that 75% of Conservatives are stupid. So Mill was in fact fobbing Sir John off.

Do I get a prize?


If you're saying that Conservatives ARE stupid, then yes, you get a prize. If you are saying the opposite, you don't.

I expect that you can draft a formula to clarify that to yourself as well?


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