Bryan Caplan  

Was Mises a Bad Writer? Take the Strunk-White Challenge

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When I denounce Hayek's heinous writing style, many libertarians retort that Mises was even worse.  Their claim baffles me.  Yes, you can fault Mises' organization; do you really want to begin your treatise on economics with 89 pages of Kantian philosophy?  But sentence-by-sentence, Mises is hard to criticize.  Personally, I think his prose sings.  But at bare minimum, it's readable.

Disagree?  Here's my challenge.  Pick a random sentence from Mises and tell me how Strunk and White (or Orwell for that matter) would have made it better.  Will you find room for improvement?  Perhaps.  But unless you hand-pick the worst Misesian sentence you can find, you won't be able to improve it much.


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COMMENTS (18 to date)
D. Carvajal writes:
Der Wirtschaftsinterventionismus kann nicht als ein System von Dauer angesehen werden. Er ist lediglich eine Methode, um allmählich und stufenweise vom Kapitalismus zum Kommunismus überzugehen.

This quote is written so bad I can't read it at all.

Les writes:

At the time that Mises and Hayek were writing, most people had better education and better reading and writing skills than today.

The writings of Mises and Hayek should be judged in terms applicable to their period of time, and not by standards of the dumbed-down present time.

Daniel D writes:

@Les:

Clear and concise writing is not "dumbed-down."

Paul W writes:

Reading Mises or Hayek can take a long time because you need to go back and reorganize the sentences that are half a page in length. I have noticed that at times they write in a style that is very clear and concise, and at other times in a style that is rambling with too many parenthetics, assides separated by commas, etc. I have concluded that the scholarly writers at times dictated their material to stnographers in the early days and into dictating machines in modern times. Whoever typed the final draft just typed it the way it was said. When dictating, the scholars talked in their normal fashion, that is, rambling narative broken up by interjections of explanations and addendums. If they had re-read their work they probably would have reworked it for more readability. The parts of the book that are concise are probably the parts that they actually typed themselves.

kzndr writes:

And maybe judging Mises by the standard of Strunk and White wouldn't be such a good idea after all: http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497

Josh Edlin writes:

Ludwig von Mises began writing in 1902 and wrote into the 1960s.

William Strunk, Jr. originally wrote The Elements of Style in 1918. E.B. White revised it in 1959.

Strunk and White was the standard of the time.

David R. Henderson writes:

Just for fun, I picked out of my library von Mises' The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science. That's one of Mises' books that I know least well and, given the subject matter, it seemed like one with the maximum probability of being written in a turgid style. After jumping from one sentence to another, chosen randomly, I gave up after 8 sentences. Some of the sentences are long; but all are clear.

drobviousso writes:

Think Mises would be opposed to using the standard readability metrics on works that play down the use of standard metrics?

twv writes:

Picking up Human Action and looking at passages randomly, I noticed two things:

1. I had marked up my copy, and don't remember doing that.

2. Mises is quite often a powerful writer.

My theory about the "difficulty" charge pertains not to sentence length and grammatical construction, but the high level of abstraction. Not a lot of stories get told in a Mises tome. Fun anecdotes? Rare.

That's the criteria most people judge "think" books these days. Malcolm Gladwell - a brilliant journalist - provides the standard. Mises didn't write that kind of book.

Amaturus writes:

D. Carvajal,

Das Deutsches ins Englisches zu übersetzen ist immer eine schwierige Sache, aber ich glaube nicht dass man sagen sollte, dass dieses Text "schlecht geschrieben" ist.

To translate German into English is always comoplicated, but I don't think one should say this passage is "written poorly".

The languages are too different to give such a rash comparison. It's perfectly clear in German.

Michael J. Green writes:

I think Mises is clear, precise, direct and occasionally witty. I very much enjoy his writing, and those writers who share these qualities; Anthony de Jasay comes to mind.

Hayek can be very difficult. I like some of the essays in Individualism and Economic Order, while I still don't think I've absorbed a fraction of what's contained in Prices and Production.

I've tried twice now to read The Road to Serfdom, and I still have not finished it. I just don't find it a comfortable read. On the other hand, I devoured most every chapter of Human Action and Mises's Liberalism, along with many of his shorter works.

Amaturus writes:

I see it's a joke now. Humor is difficult to read in text.

Les writes:

Daniel D writes:

@Les:

Clear and concise writing is not "dumbed-down."

I fully agree. But clear and concise writing is not representative of the dumbed-down present time.

Kevin Donoghue writes:

I presume Mises wrote in German? If so one should make allowances. Anyway, using Excels RANDBETWEEN function I selected this from the first twenty sentences of the introduction to Human Action:

It conveyed knowledge which could be regarded neither as logic, mathematics, psychology, physics, nor biology.

That’s not a bad sentence by any means. But if Orwell had wanted to make such a claim, he would have written something like this:

Biologists do not cover this ground, nor do psychologists, physicists, mathematicians or logicians.

Incidentally, the sentence before the one I drew is:

The discovery of a regularity in the sequence and interdependence of market phenomena went beyond the limits of the traditional system of learning.

That’s bad enough to serve as an example of what a writer should avoid. Imagine Orwell looking over your shoulder as you type. Do you think you’d get away with something like that?

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

Reading Road To Serfdom was a life-changing event for me.

But it was written in an era where you had to propose an idea, and find and discuss all the loopholes and counter-arguments. Modern political writing is about belittling or ignoring possible alternative perspectives, or attacking the morals or sanity of the writer.

Serfdom seemed to me written so well that I realized how horrible modern writing is (since say the early 70's) in comparison. I read engineering design documents and most degree'd people under age 35 can't spell. I see legal briefs and TV commercials with typos. This characteristic laziness pervades almost all modern writing.

Doc Merlin writes:

@TWV
Agreed

@ Jeremy, Alabama

I am a fairly lazy writer and I agree. Road to serfdom is far better than is given credit for mostly because of its attention to detail.

RPLong writes:

Mises wrote incredibly well, but he didn't write for the layman. Every sentence he wrote was extremely academic. You're supposed to think through it, that's the whole point!

For what it's worth, I find Mises much more digestible if you read his work aloud. If you can imagine him speaking what he wrote, it is much more clear, for whatever reason.

(If you can't imagine his voice, then head on over to Mises.org, they have an old radio broadcast recording of him archived somewhere.)

Doc Merlin writes:

@TWV
Agreed

@ Jeremy, Alabama

I am a fairly lazy writer and I agree. Road to serfdom is far better than is given credit for mostly because of its attention to detail.

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