The evolution of stupidity

Protecting people from themselves actually encourages irresponsibility

At least one scientist thinks human beings are getting dumber.


We don’t know about that, but there’s little question that we’re acting that way.

Professor Gerald Crabtree of Stanford University recently posited that human intelligence peaked as far back as 2,000 years ago – basically because our survival back then depended more on our wits.

“A hunter-gatherer who did not correctly conceive a solution to providing food or shelter probably died, along with his or her progeny,” Dr. Crabtree suggests, “whereas a modern Wall Street executive that made a similar conceptual mistake would receive a substantial bonus and be a more attractive mate.”

It’s a more fanciful hypothesis than we’re used to seeing from science, and certainly one that attracts anecdotal evidence.

You may have noticed, for example, that television commercials that depict dangerous or even impossible situations – cars being driven into bodies of water, or a guy flying through the air while holding onto a moving pickup’s tailgate – come with small-print warnings at the bottom of the screen: “Do not attempt.”

Such a warning, no doubt suggested in a memo from the company’s legal department, presupposes two things: 1) someone is stupid enough to try the stunt himself and 2) will sue if he gets hurt.

It’s a sad and funny statement about the state of our legal system, but also about intelligence levels. The lawyers are probably right.

A less whimsical bit of evidence that Dr. Crabtree might someday be proved right is American society’s apparent attempt to protect people from the consequences of their imprudent and downright stupid behavior.

From large, irresponsible firms collapsing from the weight of their recklessness, to indiscreet and intemperate gluttons for gratification, many people today think they deserve to be bailed out.

And, stupidly, we’re bailing them out.

Secretary of State John Kerry recently told a European audience that Americans “have a right to be stupid.” Indeed. In fact, “stupid” has become something of a protected class in America: A man can, for instance, impregnate as many women as he likes, or a woman can have babies with as many different men as she likes, and the worst that may happen to them is they’re held up to scorn on Maury Povich’s show (where the promiscuous-and-proud crowd goes to find out who the daddy is).

That’s because the government is there to pick up the slack.

And when taxpayers occasionally rebel enough to ask, in the law, that public-benefits recipients be drug-tested – sort of like taxpayers are tested for drugs when they get jobs – they’re told to mind their own business.

Really? Doesn’t taking my money and giving it to someone else to protect them from their own irresponsibility kind of make it my business just a little? Don’t I have a right to some sense that my hard-earned money isn’t just supporting someone else’s drug habit?

Apparently not. Ours is not to question the largesse of government – ours is to shut up and subsidize.

It all begs the question: How many people can be protected from the consequences of their behaviors, for how long, and at how great a cost?

The real tragedy is that, in trying everything to protect people from themselves, we’re enabling irresponsibility and negating nature’s demand that folks learn to take care of themselves – and we’re preventing them from growing and becoming their best selves and reaching their God-given potential.

Our attempt to weave a cocoon around stupid is only clogging the courts, as we noted in an editorial Feb. 24, ruining lives and costing us financially.

And it’s Dr. Crabtree’s best chance to be proved correct.

Here are five things we could do to try to change our current trajectory:

1. Stop subsidizing stupid; public policies and benefits must promote good choices and responsibility.

2. Be willing to stand by and watch people fail – with a humane safety net far below, of course.

3. Be open to serious education reform – and we’ve got to rethink everything, including school choice, parent/teacher accountability, and false self-esteem; not everybody deserves a trophy.

4. We need to stop ignoring, tolerating and even rewarding boorish, coarse, ignorant people and behavior.

5. As Superior Court Judge Danny Craig suggested in our Feb. 24 editorial, all of us should see ourselves as leaders and pick up our game in every facet of our lives.

Ultimately, it may matter less how smart humans are than how smart they act.



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