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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.)

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    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
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    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
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    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
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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

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