What if everybody didn't? How common sense becomes nonsense when it's not fully common

What do New Agers, religious fundamentalists, libertarians, anti-war activists, and hawks have in common? Recent conversations across a spectrum of political and spiritual beliefs reveal a common yet tangled thread. All the arguments I heard were variations on this form:

Our problems would be solved if everybody did X. Therefore do X.

The problematic word is “everybody.” Many strategies that make sense if you can count on absolutely everybody make far less sense if even a few people don’t employ them. Indeed, many strategies become increasingly dangerous to employ as you approach 100% participation and then at 100% suddenly become extremely safe.

Take trust, for example. If you could count on absolutely everybody to be absolutely trustworthy, then you could afford to be absolutely trusting and trustworthy too. But so long as some people are untrustworthy, your trust may well prove deeply dangerous. You therefore need to be able to pull out of relationships with someone you come to believe is untrustworthy. In that, you become untrustworthy yourself-but by necessity. Be absolutely trusting of and trustworthy to a sociopath, and you soon won’t have a roof over your head.

If nobody ever took advantage of anyone then you could really afford to be 100% trusting and trustworthy, but so long as there are even a few untrustworthy characters, you’re safest keeping open the burdensome question of whether or not to trusting and trustworthy in each particular case.

At first glance, it seems as though the more people become trusting and trustworthy, the safer it is to follow suit. That’s partly true. If you’re in a community of 200 and the percentage of trustworthy people doubles, then your chances of encountering a trustworthy person double. Also, as more people become trusting and trustworthy, the peer pressure to follow suit increases.

Still, the more trusting people are, the greater the incentive to act in untrustworthy ways. Deeply trusting communities are easy targets for untrustworthy types. That’s why the only sustainable spiritual communities practicing extreme trust control their boundaries and crack down on untrustworthy people, even though doing so is inconsistent with their commitment to universal trust. It’s also why so many communities built on extreme trust have leaders who sooner or later can’t resist taking advantage of the trust they have promoted.

Our problems would be solved if everybody did X. Therefore do X.

Different ideologues have different X’s. My libertarian friend’s X is taking responsibility for one’s actions. He’s strongly opposed to government bailouts, welfare, and even public libraries because he believes that they corrupt people into expecting handouts and therefore acting irresponsibly. If everyone took responsibility for their own actions, then society would be much more efficient and problems would be solved.

But not everyone will. It’s increasingly obvious that even in an entirely rational society where we experience all the consequences of our actions, many of us don’t always act in our own long-term interest, and when we do, it often isn’t in the long-term interest of the community. So yes, if you could somehow get everyone to act rationally and in the service of the community all would be well, but you can’t even approach that state because the more you free society from regulation so it can run on individual appetites the more advantageous it is to exploit others.

A New Age friend, having read Eckhart Tolle’s books, is warming to the idea that if everyone were more generous, sympathetic, and compassionate, then many of our problems would be solved. She is resolved to become more generous, sympathetic, and compassionate as a result.

My anti-nuke friend’s X is “waking up to the unsustainability of nuclear defense systems.” We are the only species that organizes to kill members of our own species. Having designed nuclear weapons that on fifteen-minute alert can kill millions is like deliberately designing the global warming disaster. If everyone would wake up to this fact, we could eliminate nuclear weapons.

Since the election, Republican fundamentalist Mike Huckabee (not a friend) has aruged on the “Daily Show” and in his new book “Do the Right Thing: Inside the Movement That’s Bringing Common Sense Back to America” that government policy should be different because: “The reason we have so much government is because people don’t behave well with each other. Not everybody plays by the rules. People don’t do the right thing,” which he defines as basically treating each other as they would like to be treated. He says, “Think about it: if we all did it we wouldn’t need any other laws.”  I love that his subtitle includes the words “common sense.” They work at several levels. First, the argument I’ve quoted is supposedly common sense, and as I’m arguing here it is common, across the full political and spiritual spectrum. But it’s not sense; it’s common nonsense. And why? Because such common sense as the golden rule never becomes entirely common and it can’t. So the question is never how to behave if everyone is applying the golden rule, but how to behave given that not everyone will.

For the Iraq war hawks under Bush the X was supporting the war. If everyone supported it, then we would win, so therefore support the war. This was the message implied by the argument that those who criticized the war were “only emboldening the enemy.”

I suppose it’s nice to see that radicals across the spectrum from the boosters of peace to the boosters of war have this much in common. Too bad it’s a flaw. But at least we don’t have to worry about everyone buying into it.

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