Bryan Caplan  

Why Oh Why Can't Hayek Write Better?

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I've returned from the Institute for Humane Studies' Liberty and Society seminar at Wake Forest University. Back in 1991, I was one of the students; now I'm faculty. Funny thing: The older I get, the more the writing style of F.A. Hayek aggravates me. Even "The Intellectuals and Socialism," one of his most eloquent pieces, seemed astonishingly uneven when I re-read it yesterday.

Here's a random paragraph:

In particular, there can be little doubt that the manner in which during the last hundred years man has learned to organize the forces of nature has contributed a great deal toward the creation of the belief that a similar control of the forces of society would bring comparable improvements in human conditions. That, with the application of engineering techniques, the direction of all forms of human activity according to a single coherent plan should prove to be as successful in society as it has been in innumerable engineering tasks, is too plausible a conclusion not to seduce most of those who are elated by the achievement of the natural sciences. It must indeed be admitted both that it would require powerful arguments to counter the strong presumption in favor of such a conclusion and that these arguments have not yet been adequately stated. It is not sufficient to point out the defects of particular proposals based on this kind of reasoning. The argument will not lose its force until it has been conclusively shown why what has proved so eminently successful in producing advances in so many fields should have limits to its usefulness and become positively harmful if extended beyond these limits. This is a task which has not yet been satisfactorily performed and which will have to be achieved before this particular impulse toward socialism can be removed.

That's 231 words in 6 sentences! Think about how many George Orwell would have slashed - "Politics and the English Language" predates "The Intellectuals and Socialism" by three years:
As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier -- even quicker, once you have the habit -- to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think.

Yes, a great thinker can be a bad writer. But it's also unusually easy to overrate the thinking of a bad writer. So here's a challenge for Hayek fans: Rewrite Hayek's paragraph to Orwell's standards. Does the exercise make Hayek look better, worse, or about the same?


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COMMENTS (16 to date)
Tim Lundeen writes:

I thought The Constitution of Liberty was outstanding, both the ideas and the writing. Then I read The Road to Serfdom, and thought its writing a big step down, and the ideas not nearly as strong or well presented.

Maybe his style changed over his lifetime? Or maybe I don't remember the writing quality so clearly because of the strength of the ideas in the Constitution of Liberty...

F. A. Orwell writes:

During the last hundred years man learned ways to organize the forces of nature. This success gave rise to the idea, Socialism, that the direction of human interaction according to a coherent plan would be as successful as the programs in engineering and the natural sciences. The counter argument to Socialism must show why what has proved successful in those fields should have limits to its usefulness, and become positively harmful, if extended beyond these limits.

Reg Hall writes:

"The successful application of science in our society has fostered the belief that the society itself can be similarly manipulated to our benefit. We need powerful arguments, not yet articulated, to counter this belief. Debunking specific proposals will not do. We must explain why the application of technology to social problems is of limited utility and even harmful when pushed beyond the limit. Only then will we controvert ‘scientific’ socialism."

SteffenH writes:

Remember, Hayek was a austrian born economist and english wasn't his mother tongue. But sometimes I wonder about the elegance of english writen texts. Shorter sentences and often better to grasp. German speaking and writing academics, especially in social sciences often try to impress with a complicated writing style. Don't ask me why. As for me I mostly switched to english writen textbooks.

Mensarefugee writes:

Yeah,
The writing style of 'The road to serfdom' sucked.

Or...

"An analysis, and indeed, summarization, of the stylistic contents of the celebrated treatise "A Road to Serfdom" leads one with personal conviction of justifiable coherence to tentatively conclude a lack of linear non-repetitive argumentation in the text".

I get scared though, when I wonder how much of the reputations of many "Great Books" is due to high flown language, and how much is due to content.

Constant writes:

Awesome. Now, can this be made into a series? I've been meaning to read Hayek beyond The Road to Serfdom. I'd rather read slashed Hayek.

Mike from KP writes:

My initial attempt at rewriting the paragraph clocked in at 132 words - just 57 percent of the original length - but I like Reg Hall's 70-word version better.

"But it's also unusually easy to overrate the thinking of a bad writer."

A more reasonable conclusion might be that unclear writing leaves more room for the reader's biases to come in to play. If you like a writer, you imagine the message to be in agreement with your previous beliefs and you overrate the thinking. If you don't like a writer, bad writing will let you imagine the worst and you underrate the thinking.

More concisely, bad writing makes it unusually easy not to be confronted by the ideas the writer wants to express.

DRR writes:

Read Thorstein Veblen sometime. You're unlikely to find a more muddled & long-winded writer. In fact, H.L. Mencken wrote a pretty devastating takedown of Dr. Veblen's verbose & impenetrable style. Of course Veblen was a genius, Mencken just an entertaining writer.

Biomed Tim writes:

Per Mankiw's recommendation, I bought:

1. Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White

2. On Writing Well, by William Zinsser

I think both are worth reading for bad writers like myself.

James A. Donald writes:

Our success in controlling the forces of nature has inspired many to hope for similar success in controlling human beings. Socialists hope to hammer men into a planned shape, as a blacksmith hammers iron.

Max writes:

As a German, I have to add that you should make a difference between German academics of social sciences and of natural sciences, because the latter tend to be short, precise and to the point, due to their schooling and the nature of their science.
However, German's tend to writer longer sentences with more information included, because the German language fosters such behaviour.

I immediately recognized Hayek's writing to be from a German/Austrian born, because the style is clearly the same. He uses the same order in his sentences that he would use in German.

I agree with the others, it's because his native tongue was German. Though compared to Karl Marx, Hayek is Hemingway.

Yes, Hayek is long-winded, and in general a bad writer. Part of the problem is that he does not give examples. There are a couple of examples in the Use of Knowledge essay, which allows people to understand the point. Otherwise, even fewer people would have gotten it. Some of the pieces on Central Economic Planning have a couple of examples as well. I sometimes wonder whether the failure to give examples is deliberate. Had he given examples, he would have been forced to defend aspects of his thought that the never did.

Tom Barry writes:

Due to our recent successes in the physical sciences, we believe we can achieve similar results in our societies. We have found no engineering problem that cannot be cracked. And so we believe that we can apply the same techniques to our societies. This is a reasonable conclusion. The arguments against it have yet to be made well. In order to do so, we must go further than just pointing out the problems in individual proposals to engineer human activity. Rather we must show that the tools that have been so useful in so many fields have limits and can even become harmful if taken to extremes. Only then will socialism be discredited.

SheetWise writes:

The immutable laws of nature have afforded man great control over his environment. It is tempting to believe that observing human action will expose similar laws, and subsequent control. Recognizing natural limitations, and the elusive nature of human action will help us resist approaching praxeology as a static model.

... 49

That was the style academics used back then. It wasn't just the badguys Orwell criticized in his specific examples.

Too bad, I know.

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