Even the greatest logicians and scientists agree that the most sophisticated formulae can be explained in simple, common sense terms to anyone.
If we agree that A is different from not A, or that if A leads to B, and B leads to C, that A therefore leads to C, we can communicate with each other. According to mathematician Pierre Simon Laplace (1749 — 1827), “the theory of probabilities is at bottom nothing but common sense reduced to calculus.”
Communication between business partners — or between a mayor and City Council — is then something that can be achieved. In simple terms, without the aid of experts and specialists, any two people can exchange views and respond to those of others, even when disagreeing with each other.
This was the central idea that governed the writing of our founding fathers in regard to political life conducted by farmers and merchants. Benjamin Franklin warned against paying high salaries to congressional representatives so as not to attract professional politicians.
A farmer can understand the logic of an argument and see through its fallacies. A housewife knows to discern marketing fraud just as well as any expert, and the local retailer figures out quite easily whether politicians are bamboozlers. It’s really not that complicated, if you pay attention to common sense.
When esteemed academic colleagues tell me that what they work on is too complex to explain to someone like myself, I always encourage them to try. I can only imagine what they say to their unsuspecting students. And when they actually try, two things commonly happen.
One, their explanations make perfect sense, and I understand exactly what they are working on, because they indeed know their “stuff.” Two, they fumble terribly, confusing themselves along the way, and ending up so frustrated that they give up. At this point I know they are full of it, and just camouflaging their own pretenses with fancy words or formulae. Where is their common sense?
What’s true of the stuffy academic world is true of the public sphere as well. When economists fail to answer the question of what should be done to stimulate the economy, they only prove that theirs is indeed the dismal science or not a science at all. They are clueless, despite fancy computer programs that process mounds of data.
When politicians give similarly vague answers to questions, such as whether we should intervene in Syria now, they betray their own insincerities. Of course, geopolitical variables come into play. What about the Russians and Chinese? What about Turkey and Iran? Can we afford a military engagement in another theater? But the complexity of the situation alone doesn’t justify no answer at all.
Common sense forces us to go beyond the fancy wordings of our arguments and dissertations, and simply convey the values that guide us. Common sense can tease them out from the complex double-talk that politicians have mastered. Just tell us that you believe in personal responsibility and therefore want no government intervention, and we can get it.
But common sense also exacts a price. You must be consistent. You can’t say you want the government off your back but then ask it to handle your retirement in the form of Social Security and Medicare. When George W. Bush tried to privatize Social Security, even his fellow Republicans were not pleased (because of their senior constituents), and he had to give up on his initiative.
In some bizarre ways, no American president has been consistent in the application of his ideology. Compromises abound. So, why harp on local politicians and their inadequacies?
Why chide the Colorado Springs City Council president, for example, who wonders why I don’t like him. Guess what, Mr. Hente, I don’t know you well enough to form a personal opinion. My complaint is always philosophical, that is, rooted in the common-sense idea of a Social Contract. Have you used it lately in your dealings with Utilities?
Common sense tells me that there ought to be a division of labor between the mayor and Council; it also tells me each ought to be responsible for overseeing various government entities. That’s simple enough. What’s not so simple is how they perform their oversight jobs. No, expertise isn’t essential, but knowing what you vote on is. Read the documents before you vote. As one can observe from Utilities board meetings, unanimous votes are routine. Should they be?
Perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson was right when he lamented that “common sense is not so common.” Let’s prove him wrong and find common ground in common sense for responsible governance.
Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS who teaches the use of common sense. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com