Common Sense

There’s a local primary election going on today where I live, and at least two of the candidates are running on a “common sense” platform. From what I can determine, and I know one of them fairly well, outside of the use of the term, their approaches to civic government differ considerably, but each is clear about the fact that he is the “common sense” candidate. But before I muddy the waters even more, I’d note that the dictionary definitions of “common sense” are “practical understanding” or “sound judgment.”

That said, after spending some twenty years in and around national politics, my instinctive reaction is to immediately distrust anyone who uses the term “common sense” in a political arena. The realistic translation of the term is more like: “Given my values, biases, background, and feelings, this is what makes sense to me.” The problem, of course, is that many of the rest of us may not share those values and feelings, and what is “common sense” to him or her may seem like anything but that to others.

Then, when you mix “common sense” with politics, unfortunately, the results are often anything but what reflects “sound judgment” on a larger scale. Why? Because politics requires compromise, and politicians tend to reflect the views of the majority of their constituencies, and those constituencies can and do have very different views. On the local level here, for example, the city council agreed to sell the condemned junior high school building to the university because renovating it would cost far more than building a totally new facility and because the empty building sat where it was surrounded on three sides by the university. On those grounds, the sale seemed to make sense… except the sole municipal swimming pool — which was not condemned — was located on the property. The university demolished the condemned structure and replaced it with a parking lot until the university could obtain the funding for a new theatre center [still pending with the state legislature], and leased the swimming pool back to the city for two years at a token fee.

The city council proposed to replace the swimming pool with a full-scale recreational center, including a better and larger pool, which seemed like a good idea to many, since there isn’t such a public-access facility of that nature closer than fifty miles away. One group in the community protested the spending of taxpayer funds at this time of financial difficulty as showing no common sense or fiscal restraint. Another group said that it was only common sense to have a recreational facility for a rapidly growing city — and to have a swimming pool to support the swimming programs at the two high schools, which have among the better swim teams in the state. A third group claimed it was only common sense to replace the pool with a better pool, but not to spend the money on a larger recreational center. One can cite “common sense” arguments for all three positions, but the debate ended up in a free-for-all requiring a ballot initiative on which proposal to adopt — which turned out to be, from what I can determine, a sort of compromise building that will be more than just a swimming center, but far from a full recreational center… and then last week, the council revealed that they’d under-budgeted for the facility now under construction.

So much for common sense — and this was just about one building in one small city/large town.

The current national debates involve far greater costs and complexity, and incredibly involved trade-offs between costs and life-and-death situations, and when someone starts in on “common sense,” take a good hard look at just whose “common sense” viewpoint he or she is espousing, because common sense evaluations rest on who gains and who loses, and what costs are borne by whom, and who “gets” and who does without.

And I won’t even call that observation “common sense.”