“laudable intentions”

So often one comes across this or a parallel phrase, “good intentions”, of equal dishonesty. Just the latest is The Australian‘s news regarding a government report telling of monstrous failures of policy. Well, apparently not of policy but of “policy delivery”. That is, blame someone else. Labor government policy could hardly be wrong, could it?

Other examples flood the pages of Dambisa Moyo’s,  How the West Was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly–and the Stark Choices Ahead, and occur periodically in Charles Massy, Breaking the Sheep’s Back. University of Queensland Press, 2011.

One feature of both these highly lauded volumes is the sheer difficulty of writing history. Clearly, neither author has experience of the pertinent training or their editors at their publishers reckoned the time required for serious editorial labour was neither required nor likely to return a profit. Should either of these books, essentially possessing a historical argument, and likewise the bureaucracy’s report into itself, have approached not only their sources critically but also their own premises of argument, then each might have had more to offer the reader. Moyo’s dependence upon straw men, in particular, is unacceptable. Massey simply fails to reconstruct the past systematically, constantly repeating the argument to come and, frankly, with each chapter making the next chapter irrelevant. And this from an academic press!

The pest is both volumes have valuable things to say. The essence of Moyo’s argument regarding debt in the West is perfectly sound; Massy, too, regarding rent-seeking. My quarrel is with the quality of reconstruction. And that is all too typical of contemporary journalism and commentary. Too much is too little known and method and language largely dismissed as being beside the point.

A splendid contrast is  Richard Pipes, The Degaev Affair: Terror and Treason in Tsarist Russia. Yale University Press, 2005. For history, this is the genuine article. Only a small book but one that abounds with learning gathered through Pipe’s remarkable experience as a historian. So, why are the endnotes a mess? We just can’t win can we?

Back we go to where we started: “laudable intentions”. No. Lazy? Yes.



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