Book Review: Robert Curry's "Reclaiming Common Sense"
In his classic book on economic policy, The Way the World Works, Jude Wanniski referenced a conversation had with the great William F. Buckley. Wanniski explained that while it was likely true that no individual in a massive football stadium was as individually smart as Buckley, the fans inside the stadium were collectively much smarter than Buckley was.
Well, of course they were. They were an aggregation of endless amounts of decisions, preferences, information, plus centuries worth of life experience. Wanniski’s broad point was that markets are smart precisely because they’re a reflection of all known information that one individual couldn’t hope to have. By extension, so were voting markets smart. Though many voters would no doubt strike Buckley as individually dense or individually egg-headish (hence Buckley’s fear of being ruled by the faculty at Harvard or MIT), the voting markets in total were quite bright for them once again incorporating massive amounts of information.
The chat between Wanniski and Buckley came to mind while reading Robert Curry’s excellent new book, Reclaiming Common Sense: Finding Truth In a Post-Truth World. Curry makes the essential argument that common sense is a “superpower” we’re all in possession of, and that we the people should be free to exercise the power sans harassment by authorities (elected and unelected) so arrogant as to presume to strip us of the right to live sensibly.
Early on Curry explains the “reason for this little book.” The superpower we humans uniquely possess “has long been under attack by intellectual and cultural elites, who tell us to mistrust what it teaches us.” Curry’s aim is to strike back, and he does so effectively. With wondrous passages from Paine, Tolstoy, Descartes, Trilling and others, Curry in a sense plays jujitsu. If the deep thinkers are going to haughtily dismiss the ability of ordinary Americans to make their own way, the erudite Curry will haughtily dismiss them right back with his own substantial intellect. Deep thinking isn’t just for deep thinkers, or something like that.
So how is common sense under attack? There are so many examples, but Curry points out how academics, cultural elites and government officials more and more pay lip service to the idea that “’gender identity’ is more real than biology,” that any desire to protect American citizenry from Islamic terrorists is reduced to “Islamophobia,” plus it’s long been the view of the deep in thought that problems real and imagined require national solutions crafted by allegedly wise minds in Washington.
With the last one, Curry argues that the “war on common sense is an attack on the foundation of the American founding.” He’d plainly prefer a more localized approach to governing whereby legislative power resides in city and state politicians over the members of Congress. Important is that the lack of common sense that Curry senses in the elites speaks to another reason to make policymaking a local matter: if people choose to suffocate their superpower, or for that matter the superpowers of others, it's best to make sure that the inevitable errors of the legislative variety that emerge from an unwillingness to accept reality touch as few of us as possible. In short, let’s limit the externalities from attempts to silence common sense.
After that, and once reason has been allowed to reveal itself anew, let’s again use this remarkable ability we all possess to see good and bad to our advantage. Let’s pay less attention to our emotions, and pay more mind to our superpower.
The highly useful common sense, reductio absurdum line from P.J. O'Rourke line that Curry utilizes throughout Reclaiming Common Sense is “Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” Common sense tells us to not do the latter, and Curry correctly asserts that common sense tells us to not do the former either. Why on earth would we empower those with incredibly limited information to make choices for hundreds of millions of people who, by virtue of being human beings, once again possess the superpower that is common sense? If thought about deeply, it’s truly as foolish as it would be to give teenage boys whiskey and car keys.
Important about the O’Rourke quote and Curry’s effective use of it, is that the author makes distinctions. While we might blanch at seeing a teen with Dewars and car keys, we wouldn’t upon seeing a middle-aged man. As Curry rightly points out, “the process of growing up is a process of acquiring common sense.” No doubt. And here, in your reviewer’s mind, lies the other problem with government action, particularly on a national level: while the middle-aged man is the product of decades worth of errors that have imbued him with a great deal of common sense, governments rarely have to realize errors. Precisely because they’re not businesses, precisely because they don’t necessarily face reduced budgets if they fail, there’s little reason to improve. Governments don't gradually compound common sense simply because they don't need to.
With the above, Curry speaks from personal experience. One summer in the 1960s he took a high-paying federal job after the national political class instituted what Curry describes as one of those “let there be jobs” decrees. As he recalls, "my job was to occupy” the “middle position on the bench seat of a truck.” About this, if you the reader are waiting for more, stop waiting. That was Curry’s job. Governments are advised by Keynesian economists who think spending powers growth, that the money just must be spent. It doesn’t matter how. Oh my!
In Curry’s case, and assuming he ever had statist views, he was cleansed of them that summer. Despite the job paying very well, he quit mid-way through. Curry viewed his employment as something that defied basic laws of economics. In the private sector, his employer “would have had to keep us busy doing something that brought in enough value to pay our salaries…” About this, it’s not unreasonable to say Curry perhaps understates the error! It’s not just the federal government’s creation of jobs that have no purpose, and how the latter deprives the private sector of precious funds to use in order to grow, but think of the biggest loss to the private sector: human beings who, absent cushy employment, would be forced to exercise their talents. Simply put, the horrors of government spending cannot be limited solely to dollars wasted. It’s so much more. It’s the loss of people.
Bringing this all back to the Founders, it’s worth reiterating Curry’s belief that a “war on common sense is an attack on the foundation of the American founding.” Curry argues that the Founders were wise in their belief that if common sense can guide the people in their lives, so can it guide the political. So let the people be. Leave them alone because per Curry via the Founders, the American people were and are capable of self-rule. Curry quotes Thomas Jefferson as saying “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs.”
Were there disagreements? A few. Curry writes that “if you have followed what has been happening at your alma mater or elsewhere in academia, you already know that education has been replaced by indoctrination in multiculturalism and an ever-changing array of politically correct doctrines that are inimical to the American foundational philosophy.” He adds that “our colleges and universities are teaching students to distrust their own common sense and to deny the existence of objective truth.” About this, it’s first worth asking when campuses weren’t heavily populated by lefties? Was it during the 1950s? Ok, but God and Man at Yale says academia has long been populated by the left leaning. And if the point is that before the ‘50s education was better, too few Americans were college educated for it to have mattered one way or the other. Needless to say, more and more Americans are college educated, but the alleged “indoctrination” doesn’t seem to be showing up in voting patterns. That’s a long way of saying conservatives are a little too outraged these days about everything, and too eager to pull the victim card.
As for common sense, it cuts both ways. Curry writes that a desire for “secure borders” is common sense, but he can’t have it both ways. If per Curry, “everyone knows” that “government is always and everywhere inefficient,” has he stopped to consider the massive increase in the size, scope and armed nature of the federal government that will have to materialize in order to fail impressively when it comes to “secure borders”? After that, isn’t the “common sense” solution one of acknowledging that humans in possession of the superpower ability to reason are always and everywhere going to migrate where opportunity is greatest? If so, wouldn’t the common sense solution be to acknowledge human nature, followed by a legalization of all work in concert with a requirement that strivers announce themselves at checkpoints? If so, a much smaller and cheaper border patrol would pursue a much smaller number who are trying to enter without announcing?
Still, those are just quibbles. Curry is right to make a strong and rather intellectual case for common sense. The alternative is romanticism, which would be the individuals who populate the U.S. choosing to ignore their superpower. It would be the destruction of the nation.
Better yet, Curry has a more reasonable solution; one we all know intuitively. As he writes three quarters of the way through Reclaiming Common Sense, “When someone comes up with a better way of doing something, it is quickly adopted by others and becomes simply the way we do things.” Yes. Amen. Common sense. Let people do as they wish. Let them fail and succeed in the process. Let others observe. In time they'll emulate, as will politicians acting locally aim to mimic achievements reached locally around the country. Life is very simple, if we let it be. Curry’s excellent books reminds us of why.