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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

On Writing (Liberty) Well: William Zinsser on F.A. Hayek

The simple elegance of Hayek's writing was his most powerful tool

William Zinsser, who passed away last week at the age of 92, is best known as the author of the bestselling On Writing Well, a popular guide to writing nonfiction.

Zinsser’s four principles of compelling writing were clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity. OpenCulture marked his passing with these 10 excellent tips for improving your writing.

Zinnser wasn’t an economist, and if he subscribed to the freedom philosophy, he managed to keep it out of his best-known work. But in his book Writing to Learn, on the relationship between learning, reasoning, and writing, Zinnser shares this story from religion professor Garrett E. Paul about a course Paul taught called “Ethics in Business and Economics”:

Like his colleagues, Professor Paul had found many models of good writing in his discipline. One of his favorite assignments dealt with the issue of morality in advertising.

Students were told to read a chapter on the “dependence effect” from John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society and then to read a rebuttal by Friedrich von Hayek, called “The Non-Sequitur of the Dependence Effect.” . . .

“What I particularly pointed out,” Professor Paul said, “was the elegance of von Hayek’s argument. It’s elegant in the sense of a geometric argument: Everything that needs to be there is there, and the essay has nothing in it that doesn’t support the argument. I also emphasized to the students how short von Hayek’s answer is. I’m paying much more attention now to the quality of the writing that we discuss in class.”

We think of F.A. Hayek as an important economist of the Austrian school, a philosopher of liberty, and a scholar of the classical-liberal tradition, but it’s important to remember that his greatest impact was as a writer.

The first time I read Hayek (it was ”The Use of Knowledge in Society”), I couldn’t believe English wasn’t his first language.

The Road to Serfdom was an international bestseller, sounding the alarm to millions about the threat of centralized power — and pointing to an alternative intellectual perspective from the one that dominated in the mid-20th century.

If the simple elegance of Hayek’s prose can help to persuade students in business ethics that Galbraith’s isn’t the only take on the morality of the market, that’s testimony not only to the importance of our ideas but to the quality of the writing that presents those ideas to the rest of the world.

We should strive all the time to that level of clarity, concision, and rigor.