Nick Hopkinson: Against “stupidity” and the tyranny of merit

Albert Einstein’s observation, “two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I am not yet completely sure about the universe,” has been much cited since the emergence of covid-19. It’s an amusing line and perhaps also an affirmation for those of us who might believe that we find ourselves on the smart side of humanity. In parallel, the terms “covidiocy” and “covidiots” have become a shorthand for people rejecting or ignoring the public health measures needed to control the spread of the virus. This framing is dangerous and unhelpful. The terms have an othering effect, but no one should be too comfortable. After all, much stupidity has been the stupidity of the political elite: delayed lockdowns, shambolic messaging, dodgy procurement, “let the bodies pile high,” incoherence about masks, the false dichotomy of health and economy, Rishi Sunak’s “eat out to help spread coronavirus” campaign. 

So called “covidiocy,” like any belief system or behaviour, has causes. Some of these relate to well funded disinformation campaigns promoting vaccine conspiracy theories and calamitous herd immunity through infection policies. Venting disapproval at “covidiot” behaviour risks obscuring these structural issues. Considering much of the media, rather than Einstein, we need John Milton’s “they who have put out the people’s eyes reproach them of their blindness.” 

Elite stupidity is hardly unique to covid-19. As set out in Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth: The Decade We Could Have Stopped Climate Change, an effect of atmospheric CO2 on temperature was first posited by John Tyndall in 1859. [1] The possibility of a global impact from this was described by Svante Arrhenius in 1896, with global heating first confirmed by Guy Stewart Callendar’s measurements in 1939. The Keeling curve, measuring CO2 levels at Mauna Loa and risen 100ppm in my lifetime, was established in 1958. The problem was well understood in policy circles by the end of the 1970s. The climate disaster currently unfolding is the result of failure to address this existential threat to humanity, which elite policy makers and governments have known about for decades, and accelerated rather than prevented. 

Michael Sandel’s recent book, The Tyranny of Merit—what’s become of the common good? reveals some further hazards in branding groups of citizens as stupid. The idea of meritocracy was introduced as a warning, not a proposal. If people were, or believed they were, genuinely stratified in society according to their “merit,” the impact on the morale of those sorted to a lower position would be devastating. 

Sandel observes that in a system that was similarly unequal, but based on aristocracy, the lower orders would at least know that their betters are in their place because of an accident of birth, not because they were in any sense actually “better.” Indeed, it has been this sense of equal worth that has driven progressive social movements. Conversely, in a supposed meritocracy, those at the top succumb to hubris, believing they deserve their privilege. The privileged retreat from notions of the common good—why should they share fortune with those less deserving? We should remember that our “lot” in life has the same root as “lottery.” 

We live in nothing remotely resembling a meritocracy, and privilege is as ingrained as ever, but meritocratic thinking is commonplace. A major sorting system for human value currently is education and credentialism. In a hierarchy of education those without a degree can feel themselves to have been judged and condemned. Why should they engage with such a system? Talk of “smart” policy frequently disempowers ordinary citizens and “drains public discourse of substantive moral argument and treats ideologically contestable questions as if they were matters of economic efficiency, the province of experts,” writes Sandal. 

Sandel identifies a need instead for contributive justice, the opportunity to “win the social recognition and esteem that goes with producing what others need and value.” Some sense of this should come from considering the key workers, typically poorly paid, actually keeping society afloat during the pandemic. Condemning swathes of people as stupid can only serve to alienate those labelled as such and has little prospect of changing anyone’s mind about anything. It also distracts from the hard work needed to build shared understanding and a sense of mutual dependence and responsibility. 

A final argument against accepting the “covidiot” concept is futility. As Schiller noted, “against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain.”


[1] Nathaniel Rich. Losing Earth – the decade we could have stopped climate change. 

[2] Michael Sandel. The Tyranny of Merit – what’s become of the common good?