Common Sense Ain’t So Common
The phrase “common sense” has numerous, albeit similar functions. It was the title of the seminal revolutionary work by Thomas Paine. Most often, we refer to “common sense” when we cannot clearly articulate or demonstrate a concept that seems obvious at the surface level. I eagerly anticipate reading Everything is Obvious: Once You Know the Answer. Duncan Watts, the author, has several takeaway quotes from his recent Freakonomics post. Regarding public policy conflicts, Watts writes:
Typically the conflict is resolved with reference to the presumed incompetence, pigheadedness, or outright corruption of our leaders. If only we elected the right people, gave them the right incentives, and—above all—if only our political leaders exhibited a little more common sense, everything would be alright. That both “we” and “they” consistently fail to follow these simple steps proves only that common sense is not nearly common enough.
Unlike for problems in physics and biology, therefore, where we need experts to tell us what is true, when the topic is human or social behavior, we’re all “experts,” so we trust our own opinions at least as much as we trust those of social scientists.
Rather [common sense] is a hodge-podge of accumulated advice, experiences, aphorisms, norms, received wisdom, inherited beliefs, and introspection that is neither coherent nor even internally self-consistent. Birds of a feather flock together, but opposites also attract. Two minds are better than one, except when too many cooks spoil the broth. Does absence make the heart grow fonder, or is out of sight out of mind? At what point does try, try again turn into flogging a dead horse? And if experience is the best teacher, when should one also maintain a beginner’s mind?
The main thesis of Watts article, and the book, seems to be that common sense only makes itself apparent in hindsight. Once an event occurs, it seems only natural that the event played out according common sense. In the moment, however, it is more nuanced. You can find several other colloquialisms about common sense here.
Note: for more well worn phrases, note my popular Cliches tag.
The Collapse of Political Trust
One of my favorite authors, Jonah Lehrer - had a great article recently on a theory(ies) for the seemingly endless discord in modern politics. After pouring through numerous neuroscience concepts, Lehrer postulated that the lack of pork-barreled, earmarked, vote-traded projects leads to less interaction among politicians of all ideologies. When politicians are not trading votes, they are not interacting. With less interaction comes less familiarity; hence, less trust.
Other noted notions of political trust include the declining presence of families in political environments, especially in Washington. Without family, there is less reason to interact with other representatives. Again, less interaction, less trust.
Finally, some have even thought a spartan view of public resources has led to less political trust. In the “good old days,” President Reagan and Speaker O’Neill could share a cocktail and a cigar despite being ideological combatants. Now, any after-hours flavor – whether or not it is funded by lobbyists – is viewed more as typical government extravagance. After 11 or 15 hours on Capitol Hill, most representatives simply retreat to the apartment they share with three other members of their own party. Or, more dramatic, several elected officials actually live in their offices during the congressional session. Newsweek quoted former Senate leader Tom Daschle in this Newsweek article as saying:
“Trust only comes with relationships. Until you have trust, you’re not going to have the kind of environment needed for compromise and agreement on important legislative agendas”
No cocktail parties; less interaction, less trust.
Who woulda thunk it? Does pork-barrel, cocktail politics actually lead to a better functioning government? I believe (although I have no data to support this – which goes back to the first article on common sense) that many of the disagreements that I have witnessed personally and through third party outlets could have been solved more readily by the parties simply interacting on a social, or at least a less formal, forum. Perhaps a little opulence can be good for the soul.
Or, perhaps, as Bill Clinton posits, we all just need a little more sleep.