On Common Sense

February 12, 2010

Lots of lip service gets paid to the “common sense of the people” by politicians. I’ve especially noticed this lately, as an upsurge of populism has gripped most of the countries hard hit by the total collapse of everything ever. /end hyperbole. In all seriousness the world, particularly the industrialized bit, has taken a huge hit recently, with large parts of the effected populations deciding that those eggheads in charge don’t really know what they’re doing. The solution is to get the eggheads out and replace their over thought, over educated “city elite” thinking with the common sense and work ethic of the common American, the small town folks who scrape a living out of the dirt and wouldn’t know how to be dishonest even if they wanted to be.

There are several problems with this.

First, small town folks aren’t the common American. In fact, they haven’t been for 100 years. The 1910 census was the last observation of the United States population in which the majority of the country lived in the country. Since then the US has seen unabated movement towards urban living. Two thirds of the population currently lives in the top 100 metro areas, and when all 363 of them are factored in that number rises to 84 percent. The sentiment doesn’t even hold up on GDP grounds; 75 percent of the US’s GDP comes from the top 100 metro areas. These numbers are similar, and in fact more significantly so, in the rest of the industrialized world. Appealing to small-town American values isn’t harkening to a silent majority; its hoping for a past that’s a century old and never coming back.

Second, there’s a reason people get higher education. Namely, it educates you. To, you know, do stuff. In most countries people get a fairly specialized bachelor’s degree, requiring specific knowledge, and maybe even go on to get a master’s degree before they enter the job force, where they do a job that requires their specific knowledge. It sounds crazy, but economists actually know more about how the economy works than you do. So despite the fact that the “common American” wants lower taxes and freer markets, I’m going to side with the economists– almost all of whom say that taxes need to increase and the economy needs to be regulated more tightly. This point carries over to other professions/fields of expertise, shockingly. A religion major, particularly one who has learned the language of the text, is far more likely than I am to be able to understand and interpret well a religious text. Historians probably know more about history than the average business major, and will get a bit spiky when people spout off fiction as fact. (No resemblance to actual fact here. Nope.) And sociologists just might have a better understanding of the workings of human society than the average office worker. But when you’re arguing with one of these folks, don’t let facts and studies get in the way of your common sense.

Third, particularly as we talk about democratic countries, there’s a reason those folks are in office and not us. Yes, a huge part of it is that they’re rich, connected, and they’re all “insiders.” Another huge part of it is that they’ve got all that specialized knowledge I was just talking about. In the US’s case, that knowledge is far too narrow, as far as I’m concerned. Most of the members of Congress have law degrees, which is fine in that they’re making laws. I think it isn’t so fine in that they’re making laws about transportation, and agriculture, and economics without having specialization in those fields. Yes, they can surround themselves with experts in these fields, but I’d much rather see them have that expertise in the first place. Still, they’re on much more solid footing than most of the rest of us, who can’t claim real qualification for higher office. The other option is direct democracy, which is essentially what California has. At any time the population of California can essentially create a law by passing a ballot proposition; that’s what Prop 8 was. Given that the crowd essentially runs California and the state is a budgetary basket case, I don’t think that’s a great endorsement for the wisdom of said crowd.

Fourth, sometimes the common person is straight-up stupid. This applies, I think, to the situation surrounding terrorists. The majority of the country wants to prosecute Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a military tribunal, instead of the planned public trial. This is just plain stupid. The whole concept of modern states is built on the ideal of rule of law. If countries throw that out because it is more efficient and easier to convict someone outside of the sight of the public, they throw out the legitimacy of their legal systems, and give far too much importance to the thugs that terrorists are. People were up in arms when they found out that the Underwear Bomber had been mirandized. I refer again to my defense of the rule of law. We have these institutions for a reason, and compromising on them is like giving a mouse a cookie. The majority of Americans don’t have a problem with “enhanced interrogation techniques,” ahem, torture, of terrorism suspects. Torture isn’t just about what is done to the person being tortured. It is also about what is done to the person torturing, and if the a country goes down that road with the assent of it’s citizens then it has begun a steep moral death spiral. This certainly deserves much more extensive expounding, but I’m not sure I’d be able to handle a proper post on torture without breaking my computer.

Look, of course academics and experts can be a little out of touch sometimes. That’s a side effect of going after so much specialized knowledge. Instead of being kinda ok at a lot of things, they’re really good at one thing. That doesn’t mean they’re elitist when their suggestions don’t quite sync up with your common sense, and it doesn’t mean they’re arrogant when they have the temerity to correct a person making an incorrect assertion.


2 Responses to “On Common Sense”

  1. Evan said

    I admit that I am not well versed in the differences between civilian trials and military tribunals, but I can’t help but feel that so long as the terrorists are given fair and legitimate trials, that is to say not the show trials characteristic of Russia in the late 20s and mid 30s, that military tribunals are acceptable. If we consider these people enemy combatants, then military tribunals are the proper venue for trying them. That being said, I admit that if we adopt this course of action, we have to be careful that we don’t do it purely for the sake of expediency. I reiterate, these tribunals must be legitimate or we loose all sense of legitimacy as far as our legal system is concerned

    • christophermahlon said

      I probably didn’t spend enough time on the military tribunals aspect to really make the case forcefully enough. Part of my perspective on this is informed by being abroad right now, I suspect. Before I thought it was weird and unnecessary, now I think it is just straight up wrong. The US didn’t do this with terrorists before; even Ronald Reagan insisted that terrorists be tried as criminals. Richard “Shoebomber” Reid was prosecuted and convicted in civilian court. All the other Western countries that have experienced terrorism have prosecuted these terrorists in civilian court, because they are criminals. In fact, when you start looking at the countries the US is keeping company with, currently and historically, with this policy, it kind of gives you the heebies.

      And it isn’t as though foreigners are exempt from the rights and privileges granted to them under the Constitution; those rights also serve to constrain them to the country’s laws. That’s why foreign travelers have to obey our speed limits, etc. These guys we’ve caught aren’t part of a military, so they aren’t subject to the Geneva conventions– unfortunately for them. This let the Bush administration, and now the Obama administration argue that they could pretty much do whatever they wanted with them. I think this is wrong. I think these guys are just criminals, and after being taken into US custody they should be prosecuted as conspiring to commit acts of terrorism against the United States in a public trial. This is, to me, about the US’s credibility abroad. We’re in bad company with these military tribunals, no matter how fair they may be. It shows that we don’t have faith in our legal system to come to the correct decision, and that’s a huge mistake.

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