What is common sense and why does it seem to be so uncommon today?
Our country was founded on the basis of the self-evident truths that all men are created equal in their essential nature and, therefore, in their rights before God. But America’s founders understood that in order for these rights to have any political operation, a people must have the common sense required to be able to discern what is self-evident. The world has always been full of people who deny the self-evident truths upon which we founded our regime. So clearly self-evident and obvious do not mean the same thing anymore than common sense means that it is a sense common to all people. Things that ought to be clear to all right thinking people sometimes are not, even—or especially—among those commonly considered today’s “thought leaders.”
So it is worthwhile to pay attention when prominent examples of common sense emerge. I am keen to draw your attention to two brilliant recent articles, one by Daniel Pipes and the other by Angelo Codevilla—textbook examples of the common sense thinking the American Founders had in mind for us, and two great lessons in how to think like a founder while avoiding the convoluted thinking of our ruling elite.
Nowadays it is a commonplace to observe that Washington has become fantastically corrupt, the brazenness of the corruption of the Clintons being among the most obvious examples. Less remarked upon is the astonishing intellectual corruption that surrounds the Washington elite. The founders would be as horrified by the latter as they would have been by the former.
At the heart of our elite’s intellectual corruption is their abandonment of common sense. The Founders were counting on common sense. In their wisdom they put the American people in charge of our federal, state, and local governments. The Founders believed that the American people would be capable of political self-rule by virtue of our common sense. But despite the shining example of the Founders, common sense has gone missing from American politics. In day-to-day politics arguments are no longer advanced by appeals to self-evident truths knowable by common sense, as the Founders intended; with political debates featuring a bewildering torrent of policy studies by supposed “experts.” And, interestingly, those “experts” keep getting it wrong.
Daniel Pipes makes this clear with his piece “The Most Embarrassingly Wrong Book Ever on the Middle East?” Pipes, a Middle-East expert himself, writes of the specialists who “lack the common sense to see what should be self-evident.” Pipes earns a special commendation because his use of the term “common sense” is analytically precise; common sense is the ability to discern what is self-evident. In addition, Pipes deserves our special notice for subjecting the output of one of those experts who is a member of the ruling elite to a common sense review.
The academic Pipes takes to the woodshed in this instance is David W. Lesch, the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of Middle East History at Trinity University. His 2005 book, The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria (Yale University Press), was met at the time of its publication with a cascade of praise from fellow academics.
New Lion is now, as Pipes writes, “a monument of scholarly humiliation.” It is out of print and has vanished from the YUP website. The passage of a dozen years, as Pipes shows, has demonstrated that the book got nearly everything wrong.
But here is perhaps the most astonishing part of the story: in 2012 Yale returned to Lesch for another masterpiece, Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad.
Whether or not you find it astonishing that Yale returned to the academic who was swiftly proven utterly wrong about Syria for another book on Syria depends upon how aware you are of just how insulated the members of the elite are from failure. Once you have elite status and especially once you have academic tenure as well, mere failure, even spectacular failure, is not enough for you to lose your elite status. This is how our elite experts lead us from bad policies to worse ones. As Pipes makes clear in his review, given these ridiculous realities, citizens should not be intimidated by the seemingly elite status of academics and experts. The common sense of citizens about Syria would have been far preferable Lesch’s advice.
But perhaps no American is better at clarifying the precise nature of the mess in American foreign policy brought about by the idolatry of “experts” than Angelo Codevilla. His article, “War Without End” in the latest issue of The Claremont Review of Books is a perfect example of common-sense realism in foreign policy, and the book he reviews is a perfect example of the intellectual corruption of the Washington elite. Codevilla examines and finds wanting Eliot Cohen, currently the director of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (and, for what it’s worth, not a fan of American Greatness). Cohen’s book, The Big Stick, represents the absolute center of gravity of the American foreign policy establishment. Cohen rejects the very notion of grand strategy. Codevilla writes that according to Cohen the job of American foreign policy is to use military power as the “guarantor of world order. That means a bigger military to be used ‘chronically’ to fight every kind of war… But, because this book tells us that the distinction between war and peace is illusory, there is one thing that we must never ever think of doing with this ‘big stick’—namely, win wars and live in peace.”
Turning at the end of the article to self-evident truths and common sense, Codevilla writes that Churchill and Thucydides’ Pericles* rallied their citizens for war
“by speaking evident truths, while no amount of spin will ever be able to convince Americans to spend blood and treasure for such as Cohen to ‘play,’ without end, at whatever ‘world order’ they find themselves imagining. The difference is so apparent, so commonsensical, that you’d have to be a member of America’s foreign policy establishment, like Eliot Cohen, to miss it.”
Can it be stated better than this?
Possibly. Here is Codevilla again, writing soon after 9/11:
Common sense does not mistake the difference between victory and defeat: the losers weep and cower, while the winners strut and rejoice. The losers have to change their ways, the winners feel more secure than ever in theirs…Common sense says that victory means living without worry that some foreigners might kill us on behalf of their causes, but also without having to bow to domestic bureaucrats and cops, especially useless ones.
Yes indeed. And Americans can tell the difference easily, as it happens, without the benefit of experts.
*in an earlier version of this post “Pericles” was inadvertently omitted.