There Is Always a Well-Known Solution to Every Human Problem—Neat, Plausible, and Wrong

Mark Twain? H. L. Mencken? Peter Drucker? Anonymous?

wrong09Dear Quote Investigator: A popular saying presents a vivid warning about apparent solutions which are too good to be true. Here are four versions:

  1. There is a solution to every problem: simple, quick, and wrong.
  2. For every problem there is a solution that is simple, neat—and wrong.
  3. Every complex problem has a solution which is simple, direct, plausible—and wrong.
  4. There’s always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible and wrong.

These expressions have been attributed to the famous humorist Mark Twain, the witty curmudgeon H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), and the insightful management guru Peter Drucker. Which version is correct and who should receive credit?

Quote Investigator: The third version above was a close match to a remark written by H. L. Mencken in a 1920 collection of essays called “Prejudices: Second Series”. The third chapter titled “The Divine Afflatus” discussed the mysterious spark of inspiration and creativity in the arts and letters. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong. The ancients, in the case at bar, laid the blame upon the gods: sometimes they were remote and surly, and sometimes they were kind. In the Middle Ages lesser powers took a hand in the matter, and so one reads of works of art inspired by Our Lady, by the Blessed Saints, by the souls of the departed, and even by the devil.

Mencken’s original statement used the phrase “well-known solution”, but modern instances sometimes substitute “easy solution”. Latter-day expressions have been constructed with a variable set of adjectives including: “simple”, “direct”, “clear”, “obvious”, “neat”, “quick”, “plausible”, and “straight-forward”. The stinging final word “wrong” has usually been preserved.

Mencken published an earlier version of the essay “The Divine Afflatus” in “The New York Evening Mail” on November 16, 1917, but quotation expert Fred R. Shapiro of “The Yale Book of Quotations” stated that the quotation was absent from this initial work. 2

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The popular columnist Walter Winchell often included a section called “Quotation marksmanship” in his pieces. In November 1949 he credited Mencken with a variant using “easy solution” instead of “well-known solution”: 3

H. L. Mencken There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat plausible and wrong.

In December 1949 the saying ascribed to Mencken appeared as a filler item in an Omaha, Nebraska newspaper: 4

H. L. Mencken quotes in Partners
There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat; plausible and wrong.

In 1952 a Lebanon, Pennsylvania newspaper printed an instance without attribution in a small box in the upper right corner of the front page: 5

GOOD EVENING
There is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible and wrong.

The saying was included in a 1955 compilation titled “Speaker’s Handbook of Epigrams and Witticisms” by Herbert V. Prochnow: 6

There is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible and wrong. H. L. Mencken

In 1972 an article in “The Saturday Review” by educator Paul N. Ylvisaker presented a variant with “simple” and “quick”: 7

What I fear, however, is that Americans—this time under the flag of the critics rather than the crusaders—will again be led into the trap of the simple solution. And as Mencken once said: “There is a solution to every problem: simple, quick, and wrong.”

In 1976 “The Boston Herald” published an instance with a different combination of adjectives: 8

H. L. Mencken wrote that for every complex human problem, there is a solution that is neat, simple and wrong. Government hiring as a solution to unemployment is such a case.

In 1983 an article in “Reason” magazine presented another instance of the saying: 9

Unfortunately, as H. L. Mencken once observed, for every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, obvious, and wrong.

In 1991 a U.S. Congressman attributed an instance of the adage to the quotation magnet Mark Twain: 10

Gerry Studds, D-Mass., sat on the subcommittee that heard Ms. Bergalis and her father. He commented that, in the words of Mark Twain, there is for so many problems a solution that is “simple, obvious — and wrong.”

In 1992 a column by a medical doctor in “The Lethbridge Herald” of Alberta, Canada included a version of the maxim with another combination of adjectives: 11

The American journalist H. L. Mencken had this to say about quick fixes: “Every complex problem has a solution which is simple, direct, plausible — and wrong.”

In 2011 a chapter epigraph in the book “Best Practices for Corporate Libraries” mentioned three distinct attributions: 12

For every problem there is a solution that is simple, neat—and wrong. This maxim has been attributed at various times to Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, and Peter Drucker as a wake-up call to managers who mistakenly think that making a change in just one part of a complex problem will cure the ails of an entire system.

In conclusion, H. L. Mencken should be credited with the quotation he wrote in the 1920 citation. A variety of inaccurate statements evolved from Mencken’s words. There was no substantive evidence that Mark Twain used this expression.

Image Notes: The left picture shows a reconstruction of the Montparnasse Crash of 1895 at Mundo a Vapor em Canela, RS, Brasil. Source: Trem; author: Arqueos Weiss from Santa catarina, Brasil; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic; via Wikimedia Commons. Picture of H. L. Mencken by Oliver Richard Reid; U.S. National Archives and Records Administration; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Rick Diamond whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1920, Prejudices: Second Series by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Chapter 4: The Divine Afflatus, Start Page 155, Borzoi: Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section H. L. Mencken, Quote Page 511, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1949 November 9, The Laredo Times, Walter Winchell On Broadway, Quote Page 9, Column 2, Laredo, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)
  4. 1949 December 26, Morning World-Herald (Omaha World Herald), (Filler item titled “Three Solutions”), Quote Page 18, Column 3, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1952 September 12, Lebanon Daily News, (Box in upper right of front page titled “GOOD EVENING”), Quote Page 1, Column 1, Lebanon, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1955, Speaker’s Handbook of Epigrams and Witticisms by Herbert V. Prochnow, Section: Life, Quote Page 170, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans)
  7. 1972 November 11, The Saturday Review, Beyond ’72: Strategies for Schools by Paul N. Ylvisaker Start Page 33, Quote Page 33, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz)
  8. 1976 October 24, The Boston Herald, Candidates need ‘workable’ theories by Avi Nelson, Section 5, Quote Page A5, Column 6, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1983 August, Reason, Freaked Out by Technology by Paul Ciotti Start Page 34, Quote Page 37, Reason Foundation, Los Angeles, California. (Unz)
  10. 1991 October 6, The Palm Beach Post, If only compassion cured AIDS by Randy Schultz, Section E, Quote Page 1, Column 1, West Palm Beach, Florida. (Google News Archive)
  11. 1992 August 13, Lethbridge Herald, Doctor Game: Cholesterol theories confusing, frustrating by W. Gifford-Jones, Quote Page C2, Column 1, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. (NewspaperArchive)
  12. 2011, Best Practices for Corporate Libraries, Edited by Sigrid E. Kelsey and Marjorie J. Porter, Series: Libraries Unlimited Library Management Collection, (Chapter 6 epigraph ascribed to Ron Zemke “Systems Thinking” in the journal “Training”, 2001, page 40)), Quote Page 129, Published by ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, California. (Google Books Preview)