The phrase “common sense,” I think we can all agree, is one that means nothing. So why do we use it?
The term is vacuous; it is an empty placeholder that tells you the speaker has no real argument. It is an appeal to an unspoken, almost certainly nonexistent, shared knowledge. It is a null set posing as information, and in which the information is presumed to be so obvious we needn’t articulate what it is. A speaker will use the term to signal information that we all “know” to be true, yet we are not told exactly, or even vaguely, what that information might be. In other words, we are left with a presumptive widespread agreement about … nothing.
The most famous appeal to Common Sense was penned by Thomas Paine, whose 48-page pamphlet helped stoke revolutionary fervor in the Colonies. Paine deploys the phrase only three times in the titular text: the first two to alert the reader that he will be using common sense in his arguments, the third to back up his assertion that the British Navy would never protect the American colonies, because “Common sense will tell us, that the power which hath endeavoured to subdue us, is of all others the most improper to defend us.”
Even the great Paine is leaning on a rhetorical crutch here. “Common sense” does not tell us that a subjugating regime will continue to subjugate, that would be experience, and it isn’t even necessarily true.
The irony is that Paine’s pamphlet does not appeal to common sense at all; it does the opposite, by delineating a series of specific arguments. It should come as no surprise that Paine had wanted to call his missive Plain Truth, but was talked into the malaprop title by his editor and publisher, Benjamin Rush.
Paine’s publisher may have misused the term, but today’s purveyors of “common sense” are truly cynical, having tossed the baby out while hanging on to the bathwater.
A few years ago, Jim Taylor of Psychology Today vivisected the idea and application of the term: “[S]o-called common sense is a fallacy that has been foisted on us by our culture of ideology (any ideology that wants to tell us what we should think and do) that prefers us to be stupid, ill informed, and poor decision makers.”
That’s about right. We do know this: the use of “common sense” is commonplace. Every U.S. candidate currently vying for the presidency has deployed the phrase in one way or another on the campaign trail. Behold the vacuity:
Health care, per Ted Cruz: “The most important regulatory reform is we need to repeal every word of Obamacare,” he said, adding the country needs to adopt “common-sense health care reform that will keep government from getting in between us and our doctors.”
Note the scope of Cruz’s mission: to repeal every word of a sweeping legislation that directly affects tens of millions of people, and replace it with … ?
Jeb Bush, on the budget: “If we get back to common sense budgeting that exists in the private sector and exists at our kitchen tables at home, we would be much better off.”
Here we have something even worse than the empty promise of nameless “sense.” No, we would not be better off if policymakers treated budgetary problems as if they were domestic issues that mom and pop sort out in the kitchen. The dynamics of national economies are categorically different than those of family budgets, by which I mean they fall into different categories. Even as mere analogy or metaphor, the comparison is doomed. The signal here is that Bush is letting regular folk in on the game: you all know what we need to do to get our fiscal house in order. No, they don’t. (One assumes and hopes that Bush himself does not believe this bromide.)
Donald Trump, supporting his claim that criminals are streaming in from Mexico: “Ask the border guards who’s pouring in, and believe me, you won’t be happy when you find out. And by the way, that’s common sense. It’s common sense who is coming.”
Facts be damned! I don’t need no stinking data to back up even my wildest assertions because … common sense.
Carly Fiorina agreed with Trump: “On the other hand, I think Donald Trump taps into an anger that I hear every day. People are angry that a commonsense thing like securing the border or ending sanctuary cities is somehow considered extreme. It’s not extreme, it’s common sense.”
Immigration is a very complex issue in the U.S. Even a seemingly straightforward piece of the problem — “securing the border” — is not as easy or as simple as some would have us believe. One finds that the more complicated a problem, the more likely we will hear a policymaker deploy “common sense” in discussing the issue.
This is not a phenomenon peculiar to the right.
Bernie Sanders on guns: “We need a common sense solution.”
To be fair to Bernie, he was somewhat specific about what those solutions might entail, although none should be mistaken for “common” in the sense that most people would agree to them. Universal instant background checks on all gun purchases? Complete ban on guns that are “used to kill people exclusively, not for hunting”? On what planet would these solutions be commonly endorsed?
Ditto Hillary Clinton. She has embraced “common sense” as part of the tagline for her gun-law reform measures. Her two-pronged proposal: 1) “get those guns out of the hands of people who should not have them.” 2) end immunity for gun manufacturers.
The first idea is something that most people probably would agree with — so long as it does not go so far as to detail the criteria that determines who “should not have them.” (It does not.) The second sounds like good policy (to me), but there’s no way it could be implemented without much kicking and screaming. It is all sense and no common. If nothing else, Clinton’s terminology was picked up by many headline writers, which in itself makes it winning propaganda.
So, beware common sense. The phrase would be completely meaningless if it didn’t mean at least one thing: the speaker has nothing else to say.