Skip to comments.H.L. Mencken on Liberty and Government
Posted on 08/23/2002 1:57:27 PM PDT by 45Auto
Henry Louis (H.L.) Mencken was perhaps America's most outspoken defender of liberty in the first half of the 20th Century. And a major theme of his writings was that "Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under."
It is worth remembering some of the reasons he gave for that shame, since, by the same standards, the government is even more shameful today than when Mencken wrote.
The basis justifying shame in our government lies in the appropriate role of government:
"The ideal government of all reflective men, from Aristotle onward, is one which lets the individual alone-one which barely escapes being no government at all."
"Good government is that which delivers the citizen from being done out of his life and property too arbitrarily and violently-one that relieves him sufficiently from the barbaric business of guarding them to enable him to engage in gentler, more dignified, and more agreeable undertakings..."
The problem is that our government has rushed in a torrent beyond those proper bounds:
"Law and its instrument, government, are necessary to the peace and safety of all of us, but all of us, unless we live the lives of mud turtles, frequently find them arrayed against us..."
As our government has overflowed its proper and Constitutional banks, it has increasingly turned to tasks it cannot do well, if at all, and attracted many who are willing to not only overlook, but compound its failings, if only they can take the reins of power. And this leads to no end of shameful behavior:
"All government is, in its essence, organized exploitation, and in virtually all of its existing forms it is the implacable enemy of every industrious and well-disposed man."
"Every election is a sort of advance auction of stolen goods."
"The storm center of lawlessness in every American State is the State Capitol. It is there that the worst crimes are committed; it is there that lawbreaking attains to the estate and dignity of a learned profession; it is there that contempt for the laws is engendered, fostered, and spread broadcast."
"Of government, at least in democratic states, it may be said briefly that it is an agency engaged wholesale, and as a matter of solemn duty, in the performance of acts which all self-respecting individuals refrain from as a matter of common decency."
"A professional politician is a professionally dishonorable man. In order to get anywhere near high office he has to make so many compromises and submit to so many humiliations that he becomes indistinguishable from a streetwalker."
"The theory behind representative government is that superior men-or at least men not inferior to the average in ability and integrity-are chosen to manage the public business, and that they carry on this work with reasonable intelligence and honest. There is little support for that theory in known facts..."
"The government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office."
"The kind of man who wants the government to adopt and enforce his ideas is always the kind of man whose ideas are idiotic."
"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed--and hence clamorous to be led to safety--by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."
"[Government's] great contribution to human wisdom...is the discovery that the taxpayer has more than one pocket."
"It is the fundamental theory of all the more recent American law...that the average citizen is half-witted, and hence not to be trusted to either his own devices or his own thoughts."
"It is the invariable habit of bureaucracies, at all times and everywhere, to assume...that every citizen is a criminal. Their one apparent purpose, pursued with a relentless and furious diligence, is to convert the assumption into a fact. They hunt endlessly for proofs, and, when proofs are lacking, for mere suspicions."
"The true bureaucrat is a man of really remarkable talents. He writes a kind of English that is unknown elsewhere in the world, and an almost infinite capacity for forming complicated and unworkable rules."
"Government is actually the worst failure of civilized man. There has never been a really good one, and even those that are most tolerable are arbitrary, criminal, grasping, and unintelligent."
"The natural tendency of every government is to grow steadily worse-that is, to grow more satisfactory to those who constitute it and less satisfactory to those who support it."
Mencken received criticism for his attacks on government for its abuse of American liberties, and he was considered both radical and dangerous by some. But even for those accusations, he had a defense for his radical commitment to liberty, one which is worth remembering today:
"The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naive and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair."
"The most dangerous man, to any government, is the man who is able to think things out for himself... Almost inevitably, he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable."
Truer words were never written.
Trust all is well with you.
Sobran, O'Rourke, but especially Mencken speak so much truth in such few words as to make my head hurt and my heart ache.
Thanks again, now where did I put the Excedrin and the Guinness?
If ever there was a cry for absolutely limiting government authority, this is it. The guys who wrote the Constitution were thinking the same way as Mencken; too bad that those who came after did not share these views. After FDR, things began to go downhill for liberty at an ever-increasing speed. Today, the last thing the legislators consider before crafting assinine legislation is the Constitution. They think about as little of the document as if they were stepping on a bug.
Freedom, Wealth, and Peace,
Francis W. Porretto
Visit the Palace Of Reason: http://palaceofreason.com
Do it right, and you can reverse the order :)
Those who like Mencken should also like the one politician that Mencken admired, Missouri Senator James A. Reed. I have three speeches and a long article by Reed from Mencken's American Mercury at my web site, to illustrate effective debating techniques for student Conservatives. I believe that you can link to at least a couple directly from the Mencken tribute to Reed, linked above, including the one described by Mencken in the above tribute.
William Flax Return Of The Gods Web Site
At this point, the taxpayer is now in the minority and those who are on the take from the public trough full of tax dollars know they can keep the gravy train rolling - until either one of two things happens - a major economic meltdown or some sort of national catastrophe, like a war on our own soil, either initiated from without or within. Will it happen? I don't know, do you?
Natural contrarian that I be, I often do things backwards.
But then being Irish as well, I found that the only remedy for too much Guinness was, well... more Guiness.
Born by the Blue River in what was still considered by many to be Confederate Missouri and stubborn as all hell, hence my screen name, I found it simultaneously entrancing and disconcerting to read Mencken's words applied to a politician.
But this is an example of the most powerful and rewarding reason I frequent FR. To learn more of and from the great wordsmith's of the past. Even when, no, especially when, you think you know it all, something like your link comes along and expands ones horizons beyond what was thought possible.
Many thanks again. And now, time for another Giniss! ~grin~
Like the proverbial frog in hot water, I believe we no longer possess the mental or physical capacity to jump out of the pot. Our only hope seems that Providence will somehow turn the burner off.
The irony is that giants such as Twain and Mencken felt the same way decades ago. We certainly cannot say we weren't warned.
What does Rhode Island have to do with it?;-)
Sorry, I just had to. Seriously though, do you really think any self-respecting deity would want to have anything to do with us at all? I'm afraid it is up to us to pull ourselves out of this pot. Well, those of us who still give a sh1t at least.
On the other hand, the most dangerous man in the WORLD is a Marine PFC with a duty belt. But for entirely different reasons. <_/Humor_>
A deity with a very peculiar sense of humor, or perhaps one who is distracted with bigger things, may be the root cause of our trials and tribulations.
As for pulling ourselves out of this pot, I do not see any Lexington's or Concord's in our future. Perhaps it is our lot to preserve the ideas, hand them down to our children, until the day comes when technology, geography, and humanity open another of history's all too rare windows of opportunity.
My favorite truism for my daughter is about doing something uncivil to tax collectors being an American Heritage, pass it on to your children. But I refrain from posting verbatim so as to not run afoul of FR policy or any sedition laws that may still be lurking on the books. After all, I am still on Hillary's list.
"...The silliest kind of application came from our VicePresident that the Senate should direct him to sign some bills for furniture got for Mr. Otis. I opposed it, as I know Otis. There is, in all probability, some roguery in it.
...Memorandum: Get, if I can, The Federalist without buying it. It is not worth it. But, being a lost book, Izard, or some one else, will give it to me. It certainly was instrumental in procuring the adoption of the Constitution. This is merely a point of curiosity and amusement to see how wide of its explanations and conjectures the stream of business has taken its course.
...unfortunately, intrigue and cabal take place of fair inquiry. Here an observation forces itself upon me: that, in general, the further any measure is carried from the people, the less their interests are attended to.
.... All people, down to the savage, were fond of finery, the rudest the most so. And I was convinced that the poor, the amount of their several stocks taken into consideration, spent more in superfluities than the rich;
...Up now rose Grayson, of Virginia, and gave us volley after volley against all kinds of titles whatever. Louder and louder did he inveigh against them. Lee looked like madness. Carrol and myself exchanged looks and laughs of congratulation. Even the Vice-President himself seemed struck in a heap--Izard would have said rotundity. Grayson mentioned the Doge of Venice in his harangue, as he was mentioning all the great names in the world. "Pray, do you know his title?" said the Vice-President from the chair. "No," says Grayson, smartly, "I am not very well acquainted with him."
...On going first among Indians, I have observed decent white people view them with a kind of disgust; but, when the Indians were by far the most numerous, the disgust would, by degrees, wear off, indifference follows, and by degrees attachment and even fondness. How much more likely are the arts of attention and obsequiousness to make an imitative impression!
... I had, to be sure, the greatest share in this debate, and must now have completely sold (no, sold is a bad word, for I have got nothing for it) every particle of court favor, for a court our House seems determined on, and to run into all the fooleries, fopperies, finches, and pomp of royal etiquette; and all this for Mr. Adams.
...John Adams has served to illustrate two points at least with me, viz., that a fool is the most unmanageable of all brutes, and that flattery is the most irksome of all service.
...It now seems evident that remarkable influence is exerted to delay the impost [tariff] until they get in all their summer goods. This is detestable; this is-- But I have not a name for it. I wish we were out of this base, bad place.
...Lawyers have keenness and a fondness for disputation. Wrangling is their business. But long practice in supporting any cause that offers has obliterated regard to right and wrong. The question only is, Which is my side?
... I can, through this channel, communicate what I please to Madison; and I think I know him. But if he is led, it must be without letting him know that he is so; in other words, he must not see the string.
... Never will I consent to straining the Constitution, nor never will I consent to the exercise of a doubtful power. We come here the servants, not the lords, of our constituents."
You would also enjoy his article, written for Mencken a few years before the Mencken tribute, The Pestilence of Fanaticism, which deals with the intolerance of the "Liberal" reformer.
Reed understood effective debate better than anyone else in his era--and certainly better than anyone in this dumbed down time in which we live. He would have absolutely destroyed any of the Liberals or Moderates in the Senate today.
William Flax Return Of The Gods Web Site
Yes, and if you read the Declaration Of Independence, carefully, you will see that it is not an indictment of the concept of Monarchy, but of the improper acts of one particular Monarch, who was charged among other things with allowing the elected Parliament to do certain things, adverse to our rights.
A moral Monarchy and a moral Republic are both acceptable forms of Government, under the theory of the Declaration. The crux of the matter, is whether or not the Government accepts the proper limitations that reflect the nature of the social compact. American Government in the Twentieth Century clearly ceased to respect the limitations on its own power, and hence became a outlaw in this sense.
That does not make it any easier, of course, deciding what we need or can do about it. But before you take any sort of action, you need to identify the nature of the problem. And in the American context, the problem is unrestrained Government--unrestrained by conscience, unrestrained by the chains that were supposed to control it, unrestrained by an understanding population.
The future may not be easy. But we owe it to ourselves, to those who came before and to those who will come after, to do the best we can to restore what we have lost.
William Flax Return Of The Gods Web Site
Reed's description of the Pestilence of Fanaticism was illuminating and heartbreaking. It certainly reinforces the truism that "the more things change, the more they stay the same". For the 'compassion-fascists' are forever on the march.
The optimism Reed displayed in the last paragraph broke my heart. It seems that for such a perceptive man, history has shown him to be naive.
Reed's, Twain's, and Mencken's descriptions and warnings seem to prove that accumulated human wisdom is not as sellable a commodity as "modern, 'enlightened' thought". Until that changes, we are doomed to compound the mistakes of our forefathers.