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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Thursday December 18 2008

I have a busy afternoon ahead, and then a busy evening recording a conversation with Michael J about The Crisis, what they’re doing, what they should be doing, etc.  I will be pressing Michael to avoid the Conservative blunder just now, of merely saying: this should not have happened.  We know that.  The question is: what should happen now?  I hope Michael is well prepared with answers to that question.  “Not this” will not suffice.

A couple of nights ago, I was at Perry’s, and we talked about various what-ifs, me having mentioned this Kershaw book (already mentioned here).  See my Samizdata postings from way back about two What if? books, here and here.

He volunteered another big one, which was that in 1941, he said, “the war was Germany’s to lose”.  If Hitler had made up his mind to go either towards Moscow, or for the oil in the Caucasus, as many people told him at the time, then Germany wins.  Perry’s preferred alternative - had he been a member of the German General Staff and someone who wanted Germany to win, you understand - would have been the Caucasus.  His argument was simple.  Even when they went for both at once, they came damn close to getting both.  So, if they done one or the other and then the other, there’d have been no stopping them.  And then, Germany would have had the one thing it absolutely did not have from then on: oil.  Everything then gets massively harder for the Allies.

I finished that Kershaw book, in which he does some what-if thinking of his own, but in which he also takes a swipe at the what-ifs offered by others.  Reading the Samizdata comments on the first of those two posting linked to above, I see that some people consider what-iffing to be a “parlour game”.  I think this is humbug.  For all the reasons I explain in those two postings, I think that what-iffing is essential to illuminate the true nature of the past and what it was like to live in it.  Many professional historians, it would seem, know all about what actually happened, but regard what-iffing as rather adolescent, something you have grown out of when you make it to being a grown-up historian.  And if finding out what did happen, in a brute material sense, is all that you think historians are for, then indeed, what-iffing is somewhat beside the point.  However, if you are trying to work out why people did this rather than that and if you are trying to explain what it felt like to be in their situation – in other words if you are trying to tell an historical story, as Kershaw actually does rather well, then what-iffing is essential.  Luckily, Kershaw does what-if, despite having earlier been rather snooty about it.

Economic life is all about what-iffing.  People’s more or less intelligent guesses about the immediate and not so immediate future are all part of why they do what they do now, as I am sure will become that little bit clearer if you listen to the talk Michael and I will be having this evening.

What-if ... Michael gets everything right this evening?  (Not particularly far-fetched.) And what-if ... the world eventually does exactly what he says?  (But how soon?) Or, what-if ... it never does this, and persists instead with its current follies, for ever?

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