The Politics Of Common Sense

March 23, 2012

In the early months of 1776 a pamphlet called Common Sense became a sensation in the English-speaking colonies of North America. Its author, Tom Paine, called for the end of British rule, on the grounds that kings were ridiculous and crooked: ‘of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived’.

When Common Sense first appeared it was by no means clear that the Americans favoured independence. Many felt a residual loyalty to crown and to the country they or their ancestors had left. Others were frightened that a society without kings would descend into anarchy. Perhaps most importantly, the existing order was familiar. Most people had grown up with it. As Paine noted, ‘a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right’.

We are at a strikingly similar moment now, on both sides of the Atlantic and throughout much of the world. For centuries two kinds of claim have stood in for kings as justifications for the existing order. On the one hand, we were told that market forces were the best way of distributing goods in society. When that proved too obviously useless, we were told that only a minority of specially qualified experts could understand the complexity of modern society. So, either markets should rule or experts should. For much of our history, these two cults have excluded the majority from active citizenship, every bit as effectively as the mystique of royalty.

Sometimes experts want to regulate markets in the public interest, as in the New Deal in the United States or the post-war Welfare State in Britain. When they do, the fans of the free market say rude things about out-of-touch experts. But for the most part, the relationship has been pretty harmonious. Over the last generation or so, experts became experts because they argued in favour of the things that rich people wanted. Rich people wanted more freedom to make money and they wanted to be called wealth creators, rather than capitalists or rentiers. Experts were happy to oblige. And why not? They got a reputation for being smart and they became quite rich at the same time.

For thirty years an intimidating mob of these experts was quick to dismiss any suggestion that the common good should take precedence over the desires of the very wealthy. Centre-left politicians like Bill Clinton and Ed Balls sounded very much like business lobbyists when they talked about how the economy worked. Central bankers like Mervyn King and Ben Bernanke told us that financial innovations were making the financial markets more stable by distributing risk. Credit agencies like Standard and Poor’s were convinced that worthless bonds deserved the highest possible rating.

By 2007 this alliance of experts and free market economics had drowned out almost all dissenting voices. It was able to decide what was and what wasn’t controversial. Support for free markets was common sense. Almost everyone who was allowed to join the version of public life staged in the major media was caught up in the prevailing delirium. When the unregulated financial markets collapsed and the Western world suffered a severe recession, that should have been the end for the market and the expert alike. Free market economics leads directly to massive public subsidies for irresponsible banks. Experts hadn’t been able to say so, for obviously self-interested reasons.

But for the moment the market and the expert remain on their thrones, clinging on to each other for support. Ed Balls, one of the architects of the current shambles, is the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. He has taken to citing the credit rating agencies as authoritative guides to economic policy; ‘As Standard & Poor’s has said, austerity alone is self-defeating’, he tells us. Standard & Poor’s has said lots of things, as has Ed Balls. The same plausible chancers who created the problem are busy deciding what to do about it.

The occupations and demonstrations of the last year are a sign that all this is about to change. People are meeting and discussing matters of shared concern and they are finding that they are quite capable of understanding what has been happening and what needs to happen. It is up to us to learn from the occupations, and from the occupiers.  So what do we take from the occupations and assemblies, if we want to break at last the power of market and of expert and replace it with the power of freely deliberating citizens?

In 1776 the beliefs of a few radical republicans became a new common sense in a matter of months. By July the Continental Congress – a group with about as much representative legitimacy as Occupy Wall Street, by the way – published its now-famous Declaration of Independence. The days of monarchy in the thirteen colonies were numbered.

The pretexts used to keep us from the guts of administration are no more or less ridiculous than the idea that a British king should rule America. Unsupervised markets do not deliver prosperity. Unsupervised experts cannot be trusted. The inexpert public is capable of governing itself and of shaping the state in ways that are just and reasonable. There can be no principled opposition to the steady expansion of popular power.

Can we make these obviously true claims into a new common sense in the months ahead? Can we do to the market and the expert what Tom Paine did to the rule of kings? If we learn the right lessons from the occupations, then yes, we can.


Dan Hind’s ‘Common Sense: An Essay on Liberty’ was published on March 15th.