Oh how I hate common sense. If there is a more misused phrase in the English language I do not know it. As Einstein put it so well “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen." Of course at this point we can dismiss him as ‘an academic’ or ‘not practical’ and many probably would. Therein lays our problem. Which use of the word sense and what definition of common?
In an attempt to gleam more I once tried to read John Coates’ brilliant “The Claims of Common Sense” but got a bit stuck. No fault of the author – in fact I may go back and give it another go. See if we try to play with the word common we conjure up ideas of ‘most people’ (and of course that not-as-funny-as-they-think ‘trouble with common sense is it is not that common’ line). So what do most people know – well they have shared prejudice as Einstein observed. We expose ourselves to the views of friends, visitors, media, meta-narratives, drunks in bars and get an idea of a shared understanding. A few hundred years ago it was common sense the world was flat and the sun moved around the earth.
If one was to watch and read only those channels aimed at business and markets (Bloomberg, the FT for example) you would see a very clear narrative developing and that shared narrative could start to sound like common sense. Cut spending (then we could pay less tax and there would be growth), cut regulation on markets (then they can be free to raise more capital in innovative ways) and pay massive bonuses (as you need to pay these to motivate staff). All common sense and who could argue – but that’s exactly what caused the 2008 (2011?) recession(s). Will Hutton has written a thoughtful piece in today’s Observer under the headline “Our financial system has become a madhouse, maximising fear and uncertainty” (subtle title there Will) and picks up on a similar point:
“What is required is a paradigm shift in the way we think and act. The idea transfixing the west is that governments get in the way of otherwise perfectly functioning markets and that the best capitalism – and financial system – is that best left to its own devices. Governments must balance their books, guarantee price stability and otherwise do nothing.
This is the international common sense, but has been proved wrong in both theory and in practice.”
Let’s jump in another direction. Let’s look at a more community orientated view. Why are decisions taken centrally when it is the local community that is affected, why shouldn’t we have more flexible working (so mothers can do the ‘school run’), why can’t parents have more say in schools? All makes perfect sense. Well apart from the fact that centralisation is efficient (I think you will find Tesco is highly centralised), how do we define local (plenty of wars started with that issues) and do we really want to live in Stepford. As for flexible working apart from the continued and very problematic narrative that it has to be ‘mum’ who does the ‘school run’ (repeated by a young mum Conservative MP on Radio 4 recently) we also find that without some structure we never get a call answered or efficient delivery (I have seen colleges get so helpful on this front the day shrunk to 10-2 to allow for ‘school runs’ – that’s darn expensive!). And as for parents running schools – excuse me but I want a qualified experienced professional educating my daughter – not someone who ‘has a bit of spare time’. The influence of parents on schools is already too great – I have received too many cards and such at various points during the year. I’m not the Grinch – it’s just I would rather they let my daughter express herself artistically rather than manufacture greetings cards factory style for the whole family at various pinch points.
Somewhere between these two is the world of the ‘pub’. In a recent surreal episode I was enjoying a twitter conversation with a friend (a fairly regular burst of sanity, humour and insight I appreciate greatly) whist three older gentlemen talked loudly on the table behind about the fishing industry. “Throwing fish back is a waste of fish” – true. “They should be allowed to land them” – hmmm “and only be allowed to sell them for the cost of fuel and expenses. That way there is no motivation for going over quota but it’s only fair their costs are covered”. Brilliant – that’s fair isn’t it? Only expenses covered so they aren’t making a profit. Well either I have stumbled upon what is wrong with British enterprise (we aren’t very), I have gleamed an insight into my own ruthless business mind (scary) or we have found a radical limit to common sense. If I was the skipper of a boat up to quota and many miles from home I would simply go over quota until my holds were full to pay for my fuel home – surely that is common sense?
I’m going to leave you with one last twist to common sense. I understand there is a link between badgers and TB in cattle; I also understand this is disputed. I have read that some in the farming community want a cull of badgers to reduce the spread of TB (common sense I guess they argue) and that the most humane way to do this is with guns. In which case it follows that the most humane way of controlling foxes must also be with guns rather than hounds – it is common sense after all.
Common sense tells me I need to go for surfing before the tide drops too far – no wait that’s a fact not common sense – common sense would tell me I’m too old for such silliness. I shall surf and dream of my own farm were the badgers can roam free – until next time – Abandon All Common Sense Now and Await Further Instructions (apologies to the KLF).