As long as resources are finite, any political or social policy helps some people at the expense of others. Any serious thinker will admit this and will be quite clear about who gets hurt. For instance, Marx & Engels in the Communist Manifesto say to the bourgeoisie, “In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.” And, they explain, we’re doing it because (a) you have immiserated the proletariat and therefore deserve to have everything taken away from you, and (b) revolution against your class is a necessary step towards social utopia. Couldn’t be more straightforward! (That said, M & E are not always so straightforward, as I will explain in a later post.)

I speak of political thinkers here because I take it as axiomatic that no politician will ever acknowledge the costs of his or her preferred policies.

Especially in time of war, few political commentators take even the first step towards this vital honesty, which is to admit that someone will be hurt. Significantly fewer still take the next step, which is to acknowledge the extent of such pain — they will make their calculations based on the best-case scenario, or indeed something rather better than that.

Commentators who frankly and openly acknowledge the real likely costs of their preferred policies are to be prized above rubies. But there will never be many of them, because — again, especially in time of war — almost every policy has higher costs than its supporters want to admit, and if readers see the probable consequences, they may well decide that the game isn’t worth the candle. And indeed, partisans and advocates are always (usually unconsciously) preventing themselves from thinking through what will happen if they get their way, because if they look clear-sightedly at reality they might lose their nerve. This is why, George Orwell, in the essay in which he says, “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible,” also says that people employ vacuous clichés because “at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.”

I just finished teaching Middlemarch, that incomparable book, and there’s an immensely touching moment near the end when Dorothea is preparing to embrace a more financially constrained life, and in her ardent way talks of how she will change her habits. She ends by saying, almost sobbing, “And I will learn what everything costs.” Socrates, what is best for men? Maybe it’s to learn what everything costs.