The dearth of common sense in the wealth of government

Posted: Aug 14, 2005 12:00 AM

"Common sense," goes the old saying, "is not so common." Is this just cynicism? If so, why does it describe our political culture so well?

In governments across the nation, common sense is in short supply. Rise above the level of a dogcatcher, and, voilá, folly blooms. And not just in Washington, D.C. In the other Washington, too. And in Colorado. And in most other states, I bet.

Of course I realize the problem of a lack of common sense is not limited to politics. Everybody does something foolish, sometime. But when we are most prone to fail, there's one thing we can often count on: advice. Warnings. Alarmed shouts of "What the . . . ?"

Though the free advice industry rarely gets much praise, there's something I've noticed about a great deal of the advice I've heard: Much of it makes a lot of sense. Common sense.

Consider's today's most common advice: Eat a bit less. Exercise more. Save for "the unexpected." Don't sink all your investments into one stock or one commodity; diversify. Often, most of us would be better off if we followed good advice from friends and family.

But here's where it gets tricky. Though common sense can be found in abundance in much of the advice we get, it does not follow that our advisers are really capable of running our lives.

It doesn't even follow that, after our advisors were placed in charge, their advice would remain sound.

For instance, I'm confident that, after running my neighbor's life for a few months, the pearls of wisdom I had dispensed before would shrink to raisins of folly. Common sense in the advice biz isn't a fixed reservoir; it varies with power.

Fortunately, my neighbor doesn't take orders from me, nor I from him. But the idea isn't irrelevant. Perhaps one reason advice is generally good, as opposed to always off-base, is that the perspective one needs to come to good judgments is voided when being put in charge. Only a few people make good bosses. There's probably a reason for this.

It's worth a test. I wonder which social psychologist would be willing to take on the experiment. . . .

But maybe we don't need to test this at all. Maybe we have something already equivalent: government, politics.

You see, government is no longer in the limited service of fulfilling just a few duties. Governments are into everything these days. Governments mess about in the minutia of our lives; they often attempt to run our lives. And perhaps merely because of this fact, governments do a surprisingly bad job. Whatever reservoir of common sense a person has upon entering the government biz, it usually evaporates pretty quickly.

If you need evidence, a number of state governments have been providing it since the economic downturn of a few years ago.

During a downturn, jobs becomes scarcer, and new businesses don't spring up to meet new opportunities with the readiness we'd like. These two facts are almost the very definition of a "slump," or recession. So money gets tight, and people start pinching pennies, as we used to say.

So what's the reaction of our politicians? Spend more!

But the problem of an economic downturn is that the taxpayers who pay for government spending decrease in number, leaving those who remain to feel an even greater pinch.

Common sense tells consumers that, when jobs are less steady, the future less rosy, and the next job less easy to find, that's not the time to buy the big ticket items or make the long-term purchasing contracts. You cut back.

This should be especially the case for governments, which can quash a recovery all too easily, by raiding the already-attacked pocketbooks of the taxpayers.

And yet politicians practice the very opposite of the good leadership that common sense would suggest. In times of crisis, especially, those in power should be setting examples. Of thrift. Sobriety. Caution. But all they do is spend.

Take Washington state. It's not exactly bouncing back from the recent recession. So the governor and both houses of the legislature declared an "Emergency."

And started on a spending spree. I'm not talking about putting more money into in the unemployment insurance fund. The spending spree went far beyond the covering of emergency services. Far, far beyond.

Now, it's not as if the citizens of Washington state hadn't given the politicians good advice. In fact, they'd done more than give good advice. They'd legally prohibited their legislators from doing what they are now doing. Back in 1993, Washington state's voters passed Initiative 601, requiring a two-thirds vote of both Houses of the Legislature to raise taxes. It also limited state spending growth to inflation plus population growth.

Unfortunately, Washington's constitution can't be changed by initiative, so 601 did not have the weight of the constitution behind it. That enabled the governor and the Legislature to find a set of loopholes and unravel the will of the people.

First, the state legislature needn't bind itself to the people's good advice; after two years, they can overturn a law enacted by initiative. Second, they called their spending spree a response to an emergency — claiming their spree was "necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety, support of the state government and its existing public institutions," and thus immune to further challenge from citizens through referendum.

And so the Secretary of State simply threw out a citizen referendum when it came, and the state supreme court backed up the Legislature's kooky emergency declaration. The government thereby became immune to the common sense of the people.

Colorado citizens are experiencing something similar. They had established a constitutional amendment similar to the Washington state statute. The amendment was called TABOR, which stands for "Taxpayer Bill of Rights." Their TABOR law imposes limits on spending growth and tax growth. With such a law in place, politicians are allowed only to spend so much, and no more. The only way out? Placing before voters a measure to break the cap.

Unsurprisingly, the Colorado Legislature has recently placed two measures on this November's ballot to raise taxes, spending, and borrowing, above the TABOR limit. Politicians couldn't find a way around the law, as in Washington. So Colorado citizens have the final say.

But the principle is there. The more power, the less sense. In both Washington and Colorado, the people have generally demonstrated common sense in wishing to restrain government growth. And in both states, the politicians have shown callous disregard for that common sense.

Common sense is not so common . . . in government. We're just not very good at spending each other's money or running each other's lives. And delegating these jobs to professionals works even less well. These truths might be considered the first principles of political science. Or, well, just plain common sense.