[politics] Common sense and government

“Let’s bring common sense to Washington” is such a common piece of electoral rhetoric that it might as well be printed on napkins and handed out in bars. I believe it’s more widely used by Republican candidates than Democratic candidates, but phrase is a universal meme that seems to strongly appeal to voters. “Common sense government” speaks to our archetype of the citizen-legislator, our (sad) national distrust of authority and expertise, and the life experience of individual citizens.

I also find it a frankly baffling idea.

I don’t want my plumber to use common sense. I have common sense, and I can’t fix a leaky dishwasher. I want my plumber to use Special Plumbing Knowledge, experience and the right tools. Which amounts to common sense for plumbers, but has nothing to do with me, no matter how many pipe wrenches I own and how many faucet washers I’ve changed over the years.

I don’t want my cancer surgeon to use common sense. I have common sense, and I couldn’t find a tumor if you julienne sliced my body open for ease of search. I want my cancer surgeon to use Special Surgical Oncology Knowledge, experience, and the right diagnostics and medical imaging. Which amounts to common sense for cancer surgeons, but has nothing to do with me, no matter how many times I keep going under the knife before this shit finally kills me.

I don’t want my airline pilot to use common sense. I have common sense, and I couldn’t land a plane with a scorecard and a map. I want my pilot to use Special Pilot Knowledge, experience, and a strong understanding of her well-maintained aircraft to bring me safely back to ground. Which amounts to common sense for pilots, but has nothing to do with me, no matter that I’ve flown something like two million air miles in my life as a passenger.

Need I go on? And I’ll bet none of the politicians calling for “common sense government”, and none of the voters eager for their message, want “common sense plumbing” or “common sense cancer surgery” or “common sense airline piloting.” Yet the machinery of government is every bit as complex and intricate and baffling as plumbing, tumors or heavier-than-air flight. Frankly, a lot bigger and more complex.

I want government by people smarter than me, not government by folk wisdom and simple aphorism. Thoughtful analysts, policy wonks, subject matter experts, budget mavens, and all their ilk. There may have been a time and place for the citizen-legislator, but I’m not sure that wasn’t ever a myth, at least in this democracy. If common sense could run government, then every cab driver who knows how it should be would be sitting in Congress.

Give me expertise over common sense, every single time.

4 thoughts on “[politics] Common sense and government

  1. But. . . this is America! Land of opportunity! Where anyone can become President, or Senator, or whatever, regardless of expertise! 🙂

    America was built, to a large degree, on mistrust. Now, there is healthy mistrust, and there is essentially paranoia. We have evolved into a nation of paranoiacs, where “common sense” means rejecting expertise, and also maturity.

    “Common sense” is also a wonderful tool for demagogues. Nothing whips up a crowd like telling them that their hunches, regardless of facts or need, are right, that their “common sense” should guide decisions, rather than the nattering of people who know what they are talking about. I mean, they’re elitists! Clearly, un-rugged (and thus unmanly) as well. Not can-do Americans.

    The problem is, our foundational political philosophy only works if everyone is informed and willing to engage in compromise and reality, or actually trust those that they choose to represent them.

  2. David says:

    I studied Pynchon’s novels at Uni and I remember wondering why on earth every character in his novels was a paranoid weirdo… reading your comment, John, I’m beginning to understand that he may have been right all along. Perhaps paranoia is what rules the US today, after a long creep to the top of the hill of political sentiments…

  3. Oh, I understand the “common sense” impulse perfectly. Imagine watching your plumber delegate the work on your bathroom to a team who dismiss fancy-shmancy PVC, argue for a while about using bamboo, and then end up trying to do the work with paper straws.

    Sure, you’d like to get people with special skills and knowledge to do the work. But when the work of supposed experts blows up spectacularly time after time—in ways that any idiot could have told them it would—basic common sense starts looking a lot better than what we’ve been getting.

  4. @ Phillip:
    I think the problem here is not that we keep hiring expert plumbers whose work keeps blowing up, but that we have a tendancy to hire whatever schmoe comes in off the street whose sweet nothings gull our senses (all too frequently, as has been pointed out, with promises of a “common sense” approach). When the work of this non-plumber explodes spectacularly, how can we be surprised?

    I think part of the problem is that calls to “common sense” often thinly veiled paeons to anti-intellectualism, replacing actual know-how with a might-makes-right/manifest destiny mentality that panders to the lowest common denominator. It has nothing to do with actual governance, or leadership, or anything remotely and actually positive. Heck, the highest praise of common sense we get is when we acknowledge that, in truth, “common sense ain’t common”. In reality, common sense is usually the equivalent of hindsight. Everybody sees it more clearly when it’s in their rear-view mirror. It’s the visionaries who have a hard job.

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