Mark Twain? H. L. Mencken? Peter Drucker? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: A popular saying presents a vivid warning about apparent solutions which are too good to be true. Here are four versions:
- There is a solution to every problem: simple, quick, and wrong.
- For every problem there is a solution that is simple, neat—and wrong.
- Every complex problem has a solution which is simple, direct, plausible—and wrong.
- 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.
- 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 ↩
- 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) ↩