Why Oh Why Can't Hayek Write Better?
By Bryan Caplan
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?