Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt

If, like me, you wonder daily why and how it has come to pass that political debate today in most western democracies is devoid of principles, this is the book for you. It is beautifully written and a brilliant, pointed reminder of why ideas matter and why we miss them so much in today’s stunted and etiolated political discourse.

Tony Judt died recently and this book feels like a last shower of intellectual fireworks, crafted to be short and digestible but still full of wisdom. Among the several great pleasures of the book are the many pithy and apposite quotations he uses. The book’s title comes from Oliver Goldsmith:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.
Pretty relevant to where we find ourselves today, huh? But many other wise words from great thinkers, not least among them John Maynard Keynes:
“…….it is not sufficient that the state of affairs we seek to promote should be better than the state of affairs that preceded it; it must be sufficiently better to make up for the evils of transition.”
are peppered throughout this brief but sparkling book.
Judt’s basic point is that many of the achievements of 20th century social democracy have been squandered in pursuit of a short sighted and narrow minded conception of the human condition, based around the belief that markets are always right and that their very rightness is a kind of natural order. He is surely right that, in the UK at any rate, political debate is based on a shared assumption that economic, usually monetary, measures are the only means by which we can assess the value of what our people and institutions do. How often do we hear anyone ask questions like: is this just? Is this good? Is this the sort of society we want? Not very, is the answer.
He makes the point that no society can be healthy when fear takes control. At the moment, we are clearly at risk of losing all faith in our ability to influence our social and political environment. Globalisation and the inexorable power of financial markets make elected politicians seem irrelevant, reduced to idle commentary on affairs they cannot contain or direct. Judt thinks this situation is recoverable and  his prescription is to change the language of politics. I hope he is right.
But this is a really tasty little book about ideas, written by a top class thinker. Nice one, Tony.

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