Is there such a thing?

I am thinking, specifically, of socio-economic systems whose theory looks fine and good—but usually turn out bad. Consider the scenario where someone, for example, is defending the implementation of a so called "benevolent dictatorship." (Where the appropriate response is: Yes, that would be nice, but could never happen—because, when actually implemented, a single person with all the power will not be benevolent.)

  • 3
    In theory, theory and practice are the same, in practice they're not. Or "it looks good on paper". – Dan Bron Jun 4 '16 at 17:23
  • @DanBron Oh, those are both excellent. "It looks good on paper" is one that totally escaped me. If you post your comment as an answer, I'll accept it. – AmagicalFishy Jun 4 '16 at 17:24
  • 3
    You might be able to find more options using hose as a starting point for a thesaurus, quote, or Google search. – Dan Bron Jun 4 '16 at 17:25
  • 3
    Systems that are easily described and sound desirable (but don't actually work in practice) are often dismissed as simplistic. – FumbleFingers Jun 4 '16 at 17:48

I always use the magnificently descriptive phrase I first encountered in Jonathan Lethem's brilliant book Girl In Landscape"The map is not the territory."

The line may look straight, but the road goes straight up the mountain, or there's a crevasse, or it was a computer approximation, or you die of a heart attack before you get there.

A masterpiece in six words; stunning.

It was coined by Alford Korzybski.

  • Genius. Great suggestion. – vickyace Jun 4 '16 at 18:43
  • I don't mean to rain on @Dan Bron's great suggestion (it's an engineering cliche – sounds like a physicist-kind-of-thing to say), but there's an element of snark in the "..on paper" phrasing, while I perceive more of a dispassionate cautionary note in the "..territory" formulation. – david macCary richter Jun 4 '16 at 18:52
  • Ah-ha – the "..on paper" phrasing seems always to connote an error, while the "..territory" formulation might just mean that something's counterintuitive but not mistaken. – david macCary richter Jun 4 '16 at 19:03

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.