Sunday, May 02, 2021

"Common sense" in politics

Something I noticed in the election leaflets we have received in the run up to the Senedd election are appeals to 'common sense'. This was especially noticeable on the leaflet from UKIP, but it also featured in the screed on the Freedom Alliance party leaflet.

Appealing to "common sense" is soundbite politics. Any point of view is made to seem reasonable because it's "common sense". Saying something is common sense means it's obvious, it's what everyone thinks, and by extension, that commonness is because it's correct. "Common sense" is the great leveller. You don't need an education or a deep knowledge of the subject or any grounded experience to know what to do as long as you are following common sense. It's the calling card of the opinionated bore who has an answer for any situation and brooks no follow up questions. 

The appeal to Common Sense fails because it's a form of magical thinking. You don't need to know how these complex systems work - just apply a bit of common sense. With common sense you don't need to understand geopolitics - just send the migrants back. You don't need to understand international trading arrangements, just Vote Leave. You don't need to be aware of how you are being manipulated by shadowy data companies, Facebook keeps telling you that Boris will get Brexit done so vote for him!

I feel like I run up against common sense a lot. I hear people who have never worked in the NHS talking about how to fix it and they are almost always focused on exactly the wrong things. There have been some bold plans laid out in election promises this year. Plaid Cymru and the Tories are seeking to outdo each other on how many new doctors they will get for the Welsh NHS. But nobody asks the questions about whether that is what the NHS really needs. After all, it's common sense. The system isn't working so let's throw more people into it until it does.

Similarly the Conservative solution to congestion on the M4 is to build another motorway. Every traffic expert in the world will tell you that building more roads only increases traffic. 

Common sense provides easy answers to dfifficult problems, and I think that's why people like it. But as a way to make decisions that will affect all our lives, it's disastrous. 


  1. I don't know about your part of the world, but common sense got a really bad run during the pandemic here in Australia. All kinds of strict laws were brought in, but governments and police chiefs said "Of course we'll use common sense applying them". And I haven't gone gone back and cross-checked them, but I know many of the restrictions, whether right or not, haven't shown a lot of "common sense", and I'm pretty sure there were a number of instances where things that in lockdown #1 were said "Of course we're not going to apply that rule in that way, because common sense", then in lockdown #2 they were applied in exactly that way (if not harsher again). And also rules that one state said "It's common sense that it won't be applied that way" were applied in exactly that way by another state. So much for common sense...

    1. I would be sceptical of any laws or rulings that rely on common sense did them to work. Because they won't.