H. L. Mencken: The Joyous Libertarian

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This
article originally appeared in the New
Individualist Review
, vol. 2, no. 2, Summer 1962, pp. 15–27.

The extortions
and oppressions of government will go on so long as such bare
fraudulence deceives and disarms the victims – so long as
they are ready to swallow the immemorial official theory that
protesting against the stealings of the archbishop’s secretary’s
nephew’s mistress’ illegitimate son is a sin against the Holy
Ghost. ~ H. L. Mencken

IT
IS TYPICAL of American Kultur that it was incapable of understanding
H. L. Mencken. And it was typical of H. L. Mencken that this didn’t
bother him a bit; in fact, quite the contrary, for it confirmed
his estimate of his fellow-countrymen. It is difficult for Americans
to understand a merger of high-spirited wit and devotion
to principle; one is either a humorist, gently or acidly spoofing
the foibles of one’s age, or else one is a serious and solemn thinker.
That a man of ebullient wit can be, in a sense, all the more devoted
to positive ideas and principles is understood by very few; almost
always, he is set down as a pure cynic and nihilist. This was and
still is the common fate of H. L. Mencken; but it is no more than
he would have cheerfully expected.

Any
man who is an individualist and a libertarian in this day and age
has a difficult row to hoe. He finds himself in a world marked,
if not dominated, by folly, fraud, and tyranny. He has, if he is
a reflecting man, three possible courses of action open to him:
(1) he may retire from the social and political world into his private
occupation: in the case of Mencken’s early partner, George Jean
Nathan, he can retire into a world of purely esthetic contemplation;
(2) he can set about to try to change the world for the better,
or at least to formulate and propagate his views with such an ultimate
hope in mind; or, (3) he can stay in the world, enjoying himself
immensely at this spectacle of folly. To take this third route requires
a special type of personality with a special type of judgment about
the world. He must, on the one hand, be an individualist with a
serene and unquenchable sense of self-confidence; he must be supremely
“inner-directed” with no inner shame or quaking at going
against the judgment of the herd. He must, secondly, have a supreme
zest for enjoying life and the spectacle it affords; he must be
an individualist who cares deeply about liberty and individual excellence,
but who can – from that same dedication to truth and liberty
– enjoy and lampoon a society that has turned its back on the
best that it can achieve. And he must, thirdly, be deeply pessimistic
about any possibility of changing and reforming the ideas and actions
of the vast majority of his fellow-men. He must believe that boobus
Americanus is doomed to be boobus Americanus forevermore.
Put these qualities together, and we are a long way toward explaining
the route taken by Henry Louis Mencken.

Of
course, Mencken had other qualities, too: enormous gusto, a sparkling
wit, a keen and erudite appreciation of many fields of knowledge,
a zest for the dramatic events of the everyday world that made him
a born journalist. Despite his omnivorous passion for intellectual
fields and disciplines, he had no temperament for fashioning rigorous
systems of thought – but then, how many people have? All these
qualities reinforced his bent for what he became.

A
serene and confident individualist, dedicated to competence and
excellence and deeply devoted to liberty, but convinced that the
bulk of his fellows were beyond repair, Mencken carved out a role
unique in American history: he sailed joyously into the fray, slashing
and cutting happily into the buncombe and folly he saw all around
him, puncturing the balloons of pomposity, gaily cleansing the Augean
stables of cant, hypocrisy, absurdity, and clich, “heaving,” as
he once put it, “the dead cat into the temple” to show bemused worshippers
of the inane that he would not be struck dead on the spot. And in
the course of this task, rarely undertaken in any age, a task performed
purely for his own enjoyment, he exercised an enormous liberating
force upon the best minds of a whole generation.

It
is characteristic of Mencken that one of the things he enjoyed the
most was a Presidential convention, which he almost never failed
to attend. Here he plunged into the midst of the teeming, raucous,
and absurd throng: into all the hilarity and inanity and excitement
of the great American political process itself, his jacket off,
swigging beer, partaking of all the fun while missing none of the
folly. And then he would write up what he saw, slashing at the cant,
hypocrisy, and concentrated nonsense of our governors in
action. No one truly immersed in Mencken could emerge quite the
same again; no one could retain the same faith in our “statesmen”
or in the democratic political process itself, no one could ever
be quite the same sucker for all manner of ideological, social,
and political quackery, the same worshipper of solemn nonsense.

Mencken’s
liberating force, of course, was exerted not on the mass of men,
but on the scattered but intelligent few who could appreciate and
be influenced by what he had to say; in short, like his old friend
and fellow-libertarian, Albert Jay Nock, Mencken wrote for (and
liberated) The Remnant who would understand.

The
style is truly the man, and not the least of Mencken’s deeds of
liberation was the shattering impact of his style. A
scholar in the English – or the American – language
,
Mencken had a love for the language, for precision and clarity
of the word, a deep respect for his craft, that few writers have
possessed. It was not hyperbole when the eminent critic and essayist
Joseph Wood Krutch referred to Mencken as “the greatest prose stylist
of the twentieth century"; this, too, has gone unrecognized
because Americans are generally incapable of taking a witty writer
seriously.

The
tragedy – for us, not for Mencken himself – is that most
of The Remnant didn’t understand either; the bulk of his supposed
followers made the same mistake as everyone else in presuming wit
and serious purpose cannot be joined; blinded by the wit, they did
not realize the positive values which should have been evident in
his work. And so those who happily joined Mencken in scoffing at
Babbittry, at Prohibition and the Anti-Saloon League, at the wowsers
and the Uplift of the 1920′s, abandoned Mencken to enlist in the
ranks of the intensified Uplift and the more extravagant wowsers
of the 1930′s. The very scorners of the politicians and political
nostrums of the ‘twenties, promptly and fiercely subscribed to the
far more pernicious nostrums of the political quacks of the New
Deal. The same Menckenians who clear-sightedly saw the folly of
America’s immersion into World War I, beat the drums loudly
and with no trace of humor or hesitation for the equal or greater
folly of our entry into World War II. The failure of Mencken’s would-be
followers to understand his “message” (a concept he would have abhorred)
certainly did not depress Mencken; it only confirmed him in his
judgment of the pervasiveness of the “boob-oisie.” But it was a
calamity for the country.

If
Mencken was not a nihilist, what positive values did he hold? His
values included a devoted dedication to his craft – to his
work as editor, journalist, linguist. This in turn reflected his
thorough-going and pervasive individualism, with its corollary devotion
to individual excellence and to individual liberty. They included
a life-long passion for music. They included a perhaps excessive
zeal for science, the scientific method, and medical orthodoxy;
along with the zeal for science came a mechanistic type of determinism
which undoubtedly helped to shape his pessimistic view of the possibility
of changing the ideas and actions of men.

Mencken’s
pervasive individualist Weltanschauung gave an unappreciated
consistency to his views on many different subjects. It gave a system
to his superficially piecemeal forays into innumerable fields. Let
us take, for example, such a supposedly “non-political” field as
folk-music. It is not accidental that both the Socialist Left and
the Nationalist Right – those twin enemies of individualism
– in our century have made a virtual fetish of the “people’s”
folk-song. Mencken cut to the heart of the matter in his inimitable
review of Dr. Louise Pound’s Poetic
Origins and the Ballad
:

Dr. Pound’s book completely disposes of the theory upon which nine-tenths
of all the pedagogical discussions of the ballad and its origins
are based. This is the theory that the ballads familiar to all
of us…are the product, not of individual authors, but of whole
herds of minnesingers working together…in brief, that the primitive
balladists first joined in a communal hoofing, then began to moan
and hum a tune, and finally fitted words to it. It is difficult
to imagine anything more idiotic, and yet this doctrine is cherished
as something almost sacred by whole droves of professors and rammed
annually into the skulls of innumerable candidates for the Ph.D.
Dr. Pound proves…that the ballads really did not originate that
way at all – that they were written, on the contrary, by
individual poets with talents…and that most of them first saw
the light, not at vulgar shindigs on the village green, but at
fashionable and even intellectual ale-parties in castle halls.

The notion
that any respectable work of art can have a communal origin
is wholly nonsensical. The plain people, taking them together,
are quite as incapable of a coherent esthetic impulse as they
are of courage, honesty, or honor. The cathedrals of the Middle
Ages were not planned and built by whole communities, but by individual
men; and all the communities had to do with the business was to
do the hard work, reluctantly and often badly. So with folk-song,
folk-myth, folk-balladry…. German folk-song…used to be credited
to a mysterious native talent in the German yokelry, but scientific
investigation reveals that some of the songs regarded as especially
characteristic of the folk-soul were actually written by the director
of music at the University of Tubingen, Prof. Dr. Friedrich Silcher….

The English
ballads are to be accounted for in the same way. Dr. Pound shows
that some of the most famous of them, in their earliest forms,
are full of concepts and phrases that would have been as incomprehensible
to the English peasantry of Elizabeth’s time as the Ehrlich hypothesis
of immunity – that it is a sheer impossibility to imagine
them being composed by a gang of oafs whooping and galloping around
a May pole, or even assembled solemnly in an Eisteddfod or
Allgemeinesangerfest. More, she shows the process of ballad
making in our own time – how a song by a Paul Dresser or
a Stephen Foster is borrowed by the folk, and then gradually debased.1

The
myth of Mencken as a mocking nihilist has pervaded literary criticism;
it was with surprise and much admiration, then, that the eminent
critic Samuel Putnam read Mencken’s great collection of short pieces
– selected and edited by himself – the Mencken
Chrestomathy
. In a perceptive review, Putnam wrote that
it was now evident that Mencken was a “Tory anarchist.” “Tory anarchist”
is indeed an excellent summation of Mencken’s life-long world-view.

Mencken’s
guiding passion was individual liberty. To his good friend Hamilton
Owens, he once solemnly declared: “I believe in only one thing and
that thing is human liberty. If ever a man is to achieve anything
like dignity, it can happen only if superior men are given absolute
freedom to think what they want to think and say what they want
to say. I am against any man and any organization which seeks to
limit or deny that freedom. . . [and] the superior man can be sure
of freedom only if it is given to all men.”2
At another time he wrote that he believed in absolute individual
liberty “up to the limit of the unbearable, and even beyond.” In
a privately written “Addendum on Aims,” Mencken wrote that “I am
an extreme libertarian, and believe in absolute free speech. . .
. I am against jailing men for their opinions, or, for that matter,
for anything else.”3 And in a letter
to one of his biographers, Ernest Boyd, Mencken wrote: “So far as
I can make out, I believe in only one thing: liberty. But I do not
believe in even liberty enough to want to force it upon anyone.
That is, I am nothing of the reformer, however much I may rant against
this or that great curse or malaise. In that ranting there is usually
far more delight than indignation.”4

The
Chrestomathy contains some brilliant writing on what Mencken
captioned as the “inner nature” of government:

All government,
in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man; its
one permanent object is to oppress him and cripple him. If it
be aristocratic in organization, then it seeks to protect the
man who is superior only in law against the man who is superior
in fact; if it be democratic, then it seeks to protect the man
who is inferior in every way against both. One of its primary
functions is to regiment men by force, to make them as much alike
as possible and as dependent upon one another as possible, to
search out and combat originality among them. All it can see in
an original idea is potential change, and hence an invasion of
its prerogatives. The most dangerous man, to any government, is
the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard
to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably
he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under
is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic,
he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally
he is very apt to spread discontent among those who are….

The average
man, whatever his errors otherwise, at least sees clearly that
government is something lying outside him and outside the generality
of his fellow-men – that it is a separate, independent and
often hostile power, only partly under his control, and capable
of doing him great harm. In his romantic moments, he may think
of it as a benevolent father or even as a sort of jinn or
god, but he never thinks of it as part of himself. In time of
trouble he looks to it to perform miracles for his benefit; at
other times he sees it as an enemy with which he must do constant
battle. Is it a fact of no little significance that robbing the
government is everywhere regarded as a crime of less magnitude
than robbing an individual?…

What lies
behind all this, I believe, is a deep sense of the fundamental
antagonism between the government and the people it governs. It
is apprehended, not as a committee of citizens chosen to carry
on the communal business of the whole population, but as a separate
and autonomous corporation, mainly devoted to exploiting the population
for the benefit of its own members. Robbing it is thus an act
almost devoid of infamy…. When a private citizen is robbed a
worthy man is deprived of the fruits of his industry and thrift;
when the government is robbed the worst that happens is that certain
rogues and loafers have less money to play with than they had
before. The notion that they have earned that money is never entertained;
to most sensible men it would seem ludicrous. They are simply
rascals who, by accidents of law, have a somewhat dubious right
to a share in the earnings of their fellow men. When that share
is diminished by private enterprise the business is, on the whole,
far more laudable than not.

This gang
is well-nigh immune to punishment. Its worst extortions, even
when they are baldly for private profit, carry no certain
penalties under our laws. Since the first days of the Republic,
less than a dozen of its members have been impeached, and only
a few obscure understrappers have ever been put into prison. The
number of men sitting at Atlanta and Leavenworth for revolting
against the extortions of government is always ten times as great
as the number of government officials condemned for oppressing
the taxpayers to their own gain…. There are no longer any citizens
in the world; there are only subjects. They work day in and day
out for their masters; they are bound to die for their masters
at call…. On some bright tomorrow, a geological epoch or two
hence, they will come to the end of their endurance….5

Mencken
had little faith in the ability of revolutions to effect an overthrow
on behalf of liberty: “Political revolutions do not often accomplish
anything of genuine value; their one undoubted effect is simply
to throw out one gang of thieves and put in another. After a revolution,
of course, the successful revolutionists always try to convince
doubters that they have achieved great things, and usually they
hang any man who denies it. But that surely doesn’t prove their
case.” This blend of libertarian doctrine and pessimism on achieving
it was summed up by Mencken: “The ideal government of all reflective
men…is one which lets the individual alone – one which barely
escapes being no government at all. This ideal, I believe, will
be realized in the world twenty or thirty centuries after I have
passed from these scenes and taken up my public duties in Hell.”6

Mencken
saw clearly the fallacy of treating government officials as uniquely
motivated by the public weal:

These
men, in point of fact, are seldom if ever moved by anything rationally
describable as public spirit; there is actually no more public
spirit among them than among so many burglars or street-walkers.
Their purpose, first, last and all the time, is to promote their
private advantage, and to that end, and that end alone, they exercise
all the vast powers that are in their hands…. Whatever it is
they seek, whether security, greater ease, more money or more
power, it has to come out of the common stock, and so it diminishes
the shares of all other men. Putting a new job-holder to work
decreases the wages of every wage-earner in the land… Giving
a job-holder more power takes something away from the liberty
of all of us….

Mencken
goes on to add, on the nature of government and attempts to stem
its incursions:

It is, perhaps,
a fact provocative of sour mirth that the Bill of Rights was designed
trustfully to prohibit forever two of the favorite crimes of all
known governments: the seizure of private property without adequate
compensation and the invasion of the citizen’s liberty without
justifiable cause…. It is a fact provocative of mirth yet more
sour that the execution of these prohibitions was put into the
hands of courts, which is to say, into the hands of lawyers, which
is to say, into the hands of men specifically educated to discover
legal excuses for dishonest, dishonorable and anti-social acts.7

One
of the major forces keeping governmental tyranny unchecked, Mencken
pointed out, was the credulity of the masses of men: “The State
is not force alone. It depends upon the credulity of man quite as
much as upon his docility. Its aim is not merely to make him obey,
but also to make him want to obey.”8

Is
government sometimes useful? Answered Mencken:

So is a doctor.
But suppose the dear fellow claimed the right, every time he was
called in to prescribe for a bellyache or a ringing in the ears,
to raid the family silver, use the family tooth-brushes, and execute
the droit de seigneur upon the housemaid?9

Neither
did Mencken have any greater affection for the military caste than
for the civilian bureaucracy:

The military
caste did not originate as a party of patriots, but as a party
of bandits. The primeval bandit chiefs eventually became kings.
Something of the bandit character still attaches to the military
professional. He may fight bravely and unselfishly, but so do
gamecocks. He may seek no material rewards, but neither do hunting
dogs. His general attitude of mind is stupid and anti-social.
It was a sound instinct in the Founding Fathers that made them
subordinate the military establishment to the civil power. To
be sure, the civil power consists largely of political scoundrels,
but they at least differ in outlook and purpose from the military….10

NO
ONE EXCELLED MENCKEN in what he called “Utopian flights” –
hilarious and magnificent projects for libertarian reform of government,
or of society in general. Thus, in a piece written in 1924, before,
as he put it, “the New Deal afflicted the country with a great mass
of new administrative law and extra-tyrannical jobholders,” Mencken
proposed a searching reform in our system of administrative law.
He begins by saying that “in the immoral monarchies of the continent
of Europe, now happily abolished by God’s will, there was, in the
old days of sin, an intelligent and effective way of dealing with
delinquent officials.” Not only, he adds, were they subjects to
ordinary criminal law but also to special courts for “offenses…peculiar
to their offices.” Prussia maintained a court where any citizen
was free to lodge a complaint against an official, and a guilty
official could be punished in many ways – forced to pay damages
against a victimized citizen, removed from office, and/or sent to
jail. “Had a Prussian judge in those far-off days of despotism,
overcome by a brainstorm of kaiserliche passion, done any
of the high-handed and irrational things that our own judges, Federal
and State, do almost every day, an aggrieved citizen might have
hailed him before the administrative court and recovered heavy damages
from him….” Furthermore, the law “specifically provided that responsible
officials should be punished, not more leniently than subordinate
or ordinary offenders, but more severely. If a corrupt policeman
got six months a corrupt chief of police got two years. More, these
statutes were enforced with Prussian barbarity; and the jails were
constantly full of errant officials.”

Mencken
adds that he does not precisely propose, “of course,” the Prussian
system for the United States:

As a
matter of fact, the Prussian scheme would probably prove ineffective
in the Republic, if only because it involved setting up one gang
of jobholders to judge and punish another gang. It worked very
well in Prussia before the country was civilized by force of arms
because, as everyone knows, a Prussian official was trained in
ferocity from infancy, and regarded every man arraigned before
him, whether a fellow official or not, as guilty ipso facto;
in fact, any thought of a prisoner’s possible innocence was abhorrent
to him as a reflection upon the Polizei, and by inference,
upon the Throne, the whole monarchical idea, and God. But in America…judge
and prisoner would often be fellow Democrats or fellow Republicans,
and hence jointly interested in protecting their party against
scandal and its members against the loss of their jobs.

“What
is needed,” concluded Mencken, “is a system (a) that does not depend
for its execution upon the good-will of fellow jobholders, and (b)
that provides swift, certain and unpedantic punishments, each fitted
neatly to its crime.” Mencken’s proposed remedy

provides
that any [citizen]…having looked into the acts of a jobholder
and found him delinquent, may punish him instantly and on the
spot, and in any manner that seems appropriate and convenient
– and that, in case this punishment involves physical damage
to the jobholder, the ensuing inquiry by the grand jury or coroner
shall confine itself strictly to the question whether the jobholder
deserved what he got. In other words, I propose that it shall
no longer be malum in se for a citizen to pummel, cowhide,
kick, gouge, cut, wound, bruise, maim, burn, club, bastinado,
flay, or even lynch a jobholder, and that it shall be malum
prohibitum only to the extent that the punishment exceeds
the jobholder’s desserts. The amount of this excess, if any, may
be determined very conveniently by a petit jury, as other questions
of guilt are now determined…. If it decides that the jobholder
deserves the punishment inflicted upon him, the citizen who inflicted
it is acquitted with honor. If, on the contrary, it decides that
the punishment was excessive, then the citizen is adjudged guilty
of assault, mayhem, murder, or whatever it is, in a degree apportioned
to the difference between what the jobholder deserved and what
he got, and punishment for that excess follows in the usual course….

The advantages
of this plan, I believe, are too patent to need argument. At one
stroke it removes all the legal impediments which now make the
punishment of a recreant jobholder so hopeless a process…. Say
a citizen today becomes convinced that a certain judge is a jack-ass
– that his legal learning is defective, his sense of justice
atrophied, and his conduct of cases before him tyrannical and
against decency. As things stand, it is impossible to do anything
about it…. Nor is anything to be gained by denouncing him publicly
and urging all good citizens to vote against him when he comes
up for re-election, for his term may run for ten or fifteen years,
and even if it expires tomorrow and he is defeated the chances
are good that his successor will be quite as bad, and maybe even
worse.

But now
imagine any citizen free to approach him in open court and pull
his nose. Or even, in aggravated cases, to cut off his ears, throw
him out of the window, or knock him in the head with an ax. How
vastly more attentive he would be to his duties! How diligently
he would apply himself to the study of the law! How careful he
would be about the rights of litigants before him!11

Mencken’s
concern for the parlous state of liberty in America, and with the
virtual immunity granted to its oppressors, was never expressed
with more hilarity or bitter irony than in his article on “The Nature
of Liberty” – written in the early 1920′s but in no sense out
of date. His theme is the police vs. the individual citizen. He
begins in irony: “Every time an officer of the constabulary, in
the execution of his just and awful powers under American law, produces
a compound fracture of the occiput of some citizen in his custody,
with hemorrhage, shock, coma, and death, there comes a feeble, falsetto
protest from specialists in human liberty.” “Is it a fact without
significance,” Mencken continues, “that this protest is never supported
by the great body of American freemen, setting aside the actual
heirs and creditors of the victim? I think not.” For the plain people
understand that policemen are given night-sticks “for the purpose
of cracking the skulls of the recalcitrant plain people, Democrats
and Republicans alike.”

It
is clear, therefore, Mencken continued to spoof, that this minority
of intellectuals concerned with civil liberty and individual rights
as against the police are subversive and un-American:

The specialists
aforesaid are the same fanatics who shake the air with sobs every
time the Postmaster-General of the United States bars a periodical
from the mails because its ideas do not please him, and every
time some poor Russian is deported for reading Karl Marx, and
every time a Prohibition enforcement officer murders a bootlegger
who resists his levies, and every time agents of the Department
of Justice throw an Italian out of the window, and every time
the Ku Klux Klan or the American Legion tars and feathers a Socialist
evangelist. In brief, they are Radicals, and to scratch one with
a pitchfork is to expose a Bolshevik. They are men standing in
contempt of American institutions and in enmity to American idealism….

What ails
them primarily is…that…having mastered…the theoretical principles
set forth in the Bill of Rights, they work themselves into a passionate
conviction that those principles are identical with the rules
of law and justice, and ought to be enforced literally, and without
the slightest regard for circumstance and expediency.

They
did not realize, added Mencken, that the Bill of Rights as originally

adopted by
the Fathers of the Republic…was gross, crude, idealistic, a bit
fanciful and transcendental. It specified the rights of a citizen,
but it said nothing whatever about his duties. Since then, by
the orderly processes of legislative science and by the even more
subtle and beautiful devices of juridic art, it has been kneaded
and mellowed into a far greater pliability and reasonableness.
On the one hand, the citizen still retains the great privilege
of membership in the most superb free nation ever witnessed on
this earth. On the other hand, as a result of countless shrewd
enactments and sagacious decisions, his natural lusts and appetites
are held in laudable check, and he is thus kept in order and decorum….
Once a policeman, he is protected by the legislative and judicial
arms in the peculiar rights and prerogatives that go with his
high office, including especially the right to jug the laity at
his will, to sweat and mug them, to subject them to the third
degree, and to subdue their resistance by beating out their brains.
Those who are unaware of this are simply ignorant of the basic
principles of American jurisprudence, as they have been exposed
times without number by the courts of first instance and ratified
in lofty terms by the Supreme Court of the United States.12

Mencken’s
devoted services to civil liberty, his opposition to censorship
as editor of the American Mercury, are too well-known to
need repeating here. But less known is Mencken’s searching dissection
of the myth of Mr. Justice Holmes as, in his dissenting opinions,
a great civil libertarian. Mencken keenly pointed out that “it is
impossible to see how…[Holmes' opinions] can conceivably promote
liberty.” It was misleading to consider Holmes an advocate of the
rights of man; rather,

he was actually
no more than an advocate of the rights of law-makers. There, indeed,
is the clue to his whole jurisprudence. He believed that the law-making
bodies should be free to experiment almost ad libitum, that
the courts should not call a halt upon them until they clearly
passed the uttermost bounds of reason, that everything should
be sacrificed to their autonomy, including, apparently, even the
Bill of Rights. If this is Liberalism, then all I can say is that
Liberalism is not what it was when I was young.13

Mencken had
no particular interest in economic matters, but he saw clearly that
capitalism, the consequent of individual liberty in the economic
sphere, was the most productive and rational economic system. He
bitterly opposed the New Deal for being anti-capitalist as well
as anti-libertarian. Of capitalism, Mencken wrote:

We owe
to it almost everything that passes under the general name of
civilization today. The extraordinary progress of the world
since the Middle Ages has not been due to the mere expenditure
of human energy, nor even to the flights of human genius, for
men have worked hard since the remotest times, and some of
them had been of surpassing intellect. No, it has been due to
the accumulation of capital. That accumulation…provided the
machinery that gradually diminished human drudgery, and liberated
the spirit of the worker, who had formerly been almost indistinguishable
from a mule.14

His
old friend, Hamilton Owens, writes of Mencken’s vehement anger at
Roosevelt’s taking America off the gold standard. “With all the
vehemence of which he was capable he insisted it was downright robbery.
He talked about taking court action in person."15
In correspondence with the famous socialist, Upton Sinclair, who
had evidently plied him with the old well-tested bromide on the
supposed efficiency of government post offices, fire departments,
public health services, etc., Mencken, instead of hastily retreating
and compromising, as most conservatives do when faced with similar
challenges, riposted:

Your questions
are easy. The government brings my magazine to you only unwillingly.
It tried to ruin my business, [The American Mercury] and
failed only by an inch. It charges too much for postal orders,
and loses too many of them. A corporation of idiot Chinamen could
do the thing better. Its machine for putting out fires is intolerably
expensive and inefficient. It seldom, in fact, actually puts out
a fire; they burn out…. The Army had nothing to do with the
discovery of the cause of yellow fever. Its bureaucrats persecuted
the men who did the work. They could have done it much more quickly
if they had been outside the Army. It took years of effort to
induce the government to fight mosquitoes, and it does the work
very badly today.16

And,
in a significant but forgotten review of the individualist Sir Ernest
Benn’s The Confessions of A Capitalist, Mencken wrote that
Benn

devotes most
of his book to proving what the majority of Americans regard as
axiomatic: that the capitalistic system, whatever its defects,
yet works better than any other system so far devised by man.
The rest of his space he gives over to proofs that government
is inevitably extravagant and wasteful – that nothing it
does is ever done as cheaply and efficiently as the same thing
might be done by private enterprise. I see nothing to object to
here.

And
Mencken immediately adds:

Even the
most precious functions of government – say, collecting taxes
or hanging men – would be better done if the doing of them
were farmed out to Ford.17

The
great individualist Albert Jay Nock has written that, while in the
1920′s he was generally considered a flaming “radical,” and in the
1930′s as a bitter “reactionary,” his political philosophy remained,
in these decades, exactly the same. The same might be said of his
friend Mencken, who also remained, throughout, an individualist
and a libertarian. In the 1920′s, Mencken directed his fire against
the tariff and other special privileges to favored business groups,
against laws and edicts against free speech and other personal liberties,
and especially against the monstrous tyranny of Prohibition. In
the 1930′s, Mencken directed his major attacks against the major
threat to liberty of that era: the New Deal. The former Menckenites
of the 1920′s and his new-found conservative champions of the 1930′s,
each, in believing that Mencken had now shifted from Left to Right,
showed that they understood neither Mencken nor the principles of
liberty. Often, what was mistaken for anti-capitalism was simply
a cultural and esthetic distaste that Mencken had for the bulk of
businessmen (“Babbitts”) as persons – a distaste which they
shared with the common run – the “mass-men” – of other
occupations. But Mencken’s antipathy to the cultural tastes of individual
capitalists must not be confused – as he never did –
with opposition to capital-ism as such.

Looking
back on the two eras as early as 1934, Mencken wrote to a friend:

If I really
believed that I had Left a Mark upon my Time I think I’d leap
into the nearest ocean. This is no mere fancy talk. It is based
on the fact that I believe the American people are more insane
today than they were when I began to write. Certainly the Rotarians
at their worst never concocted anything as preposterous as some
of the inventions of the Brain Trust. They were harmless fools,
seeking to formulate a substitute for the Christianity that was
slipping from them. But the Brain Trusters, at least in large
part, are maniacal fanatics, and will lead us down to ruin if
they are not soon suppressed.18

One
of the delightful aspects of Mencken, indeed, is the constancy of
his views. As he once, at the age of sixty, playfully wrote to a
friend: “On all known subjects, ranging from aviation to xylophone-playing,
I have fixed and invariable ideas. They have not changed since I
was four or five years old.”19

In
his charming, mellow, affectionate, and witty autobiography on his
life as a child, Happy
Days
, Mencken recalls imbibing his “reactionary” views at
his father’s knee:

His moral
system, as I try to piece it together after so many years, seems
to have been predominantly Chinese. All mankind, in his sight,
was divided into two great races: those who paid their bills,
and those who didn’t. The former were virtuous, despite any evidence
that could be adduced to the contrary; the latter were unanimously
and incurably scoundrels.

He had a
very tolerant view of all other torts and malfeasances. He believed
that political corruption was inevitable under democracy, and
even argued, out of his own experience, that it had its uses.
One of his favorite anecdotes was about a huge swinging sign that
used to hang outside his place of business in Paca street. When
the building was built, in 1885, he simply hung out the sign,
sent for the city councilman of the district, and gave him $20.
This was in full settlement forevermore of all permit and privilege
fees, easement taxes, and other such costs and imposts. The city
councilman pocketed the money, and in return was supposed to stave
off any cops, building inspectors, or other functionaries who
had any lawful interest in the matter, or tried to horn in for
private profit. Being an honorable man according to his lights,
he kept his bargain, and the sign flapped and squeaked in the
breeze for ten years. But then, in 1895, Baltimore had a reform
wave, the councilman was voted out of office, and the idealists
in the City Hall sent word that a license to maintain the sign
would cost $62.75 a year. It came down the next day.

This was
proof to my father that reform was mainly only a conspiracy of
prehensile charlatans to mulct tax-payers. I picked up this idea
from him, and entertain it to the present day. I also picked up
his doctrine that private conduct had better not be inquired into
too closely – with the exception, of course of any kind involving
beating a creditor.20

The
firmness of Mencken’s libertarianism may also be gauged by the numerous
quotations from libertarian and even unknown anarchist authors in
his New
Dictionary of Quotations
.21
Thus, in his section on the “State,” the great bulk of the quotations
are anti-State, and the remainder are so extremely pro-State that
the effect on the reader is emphatically ironic. An example of the
latter is “The National Socialist party is the state – Adolf
Hitler.” And the anti-State quotations are taken largely from highly
individualist or anarchist sources: Emerson, Max Stirner, Thoreau,
Bakunin, William Graham Sumner, Kropotkin, Tolstoy, and Benjamin
R. Tucker. It is doubtful if someone not highly sympathetic with
these authors would (1) know their writings with such familiarity,
and (2) “pack” such sections with their quotations. The section
on “Speech, Free” is, again, almost exclusively filled with pro-free
speech quotations, including not only Macaulay, Jefferson, James
Mill, and various judges, but also the quasi-anarchistic English
individualist, Auberon Herbert.

H.
L. MENCKEN’s contempt for democracy is well-known. It stemmed largely
from his primary devotion to individual liberty, and his insight
that the bulk of men – the democratic majority – is generally
inclined to suppress rather than defend the liberty of the individual.
Mencken once summed up his view of the nature of democracy, the
common man, and the State in this eight-word definition of “democracy”:
“Democracy is the worship of jackals by jackasses.” Other Menckenian
definitions: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know
what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” “If x is
the population of the United States and y is the degree of
imbecility of the average American, then democracy is the theory
that x times y is less than y.” All of democracy’s
axioms “resolve themselves into thundering paradoxes, many amounting
to downright contradictions in terms. The mob is competent to rule
the rest of us – but it must be rigorously policed itself.
There is a government, not of men, but laws – but men are set
upon benches to decide finally what the law is and may be.”22
On democracy’s inherent tendency to suppress liberty, Mencken wrote
in a private letter:

All appeals
to any intrinsic love of free speech are futile. There is no such
passion in the people. It is only an aristocracy that is ever
tolerant. The masses are invariably cocksure, suspicious, furious,
and tyrannical. This, in fact, is the central objection to democracy:
that it hinders progress by penalizing innovation and non-conformity.23

Mencken’s
atheism is, again, well-known, but for him passionate hostility
was reserved for those religious groups which persisted in imposing
their moral codes by coercion upon the rest of the population. In
Mencken’s day, the prime example was Prohibition: and therefore
Mencken’s hostility was directed chiefly toward the Methodists and
Baptists. In contrast, Mencken had no particular animus against
the Roman Catholics (especially the non-Irish sections): “Catholics
are not Prohibitionists, they have more humor than the Methodists,”
he is supposed to have said once, and he was apparently friendly
with quite a few members of the Catholic clergy.

The
linkage in Mencken’s thought between religious coercion of morals,
democracy, the common man, and tyranny over the individual, may
be seen in one of his most uproarious articles – his blistering
attack upon the American farmer:

The same
mountebanks who get to Washington by promising to augment his
[the farmer's] gains and make good his losses devote whatever
time is left over from that enterprise to saddling the rest of
us with oppressive and idiotic laws, all hatched on the farm.
There, where the cows low through the still night, and the jug
of Peruna stands behind the stove, and bathing begins, as at Biarritz,
with the vernal equinox – there is the reservoir of all the
non-sensical legislation which makes the United States a buffoon
among the great nations. It was among country Methodists, practitioners
of a theology degraded almost to the level of voodooism, that
Prohibition was invented, and it was by country Methodists…that
it was fastened upon the rest of us, to the damage of our bank
accounts, our dignity and our viscera. What lay under it, and
under all the other crazy enactments of its category, was no more
and no less than the yokel’s congenital and incurable hatred of
the city man – his simian rage against everyone who, as he
sees it, is having a better time than he is.24

Mencken’s
view of the hostility of the common man toward liberty was also
expressed in his insight into the truly puzzling question: How did
the overwhelming majority of conscripts manage to adjust so readily
to the enslavement of Army life?

All save
a small minority of them came from environments a great deal less
comfortable than an Army camp…. At one stroke they were relieved
of that haunting uncertainty about subsistence which is the curse
of all poor and ignorant young men, and also of all need to experiment
and decide for themselves. They were fed and clothed at the public
expense…and could engage freely in sports and other divertissements
forbidden in their native places. Their lives, in brief, were
not unlike those of the inmates of a well-run prison, but with…the
constant expectation of release on some near tomorrow – not
as wards of nosey cops and parole officers, but as heroes….
Not only did someone else decide what they should wear, where
they should sleep, when they should get up and when they should
go to bed, and what they should eat and when: all these accommodations
were provided for them plentifully, and at no expense to themselves.
In brief, the burden of responsibility was lifted from them altogether.

The average
soldier…found in the Army a vastly more spacious life, with
many of the privileges of a chartered libertine…. If he did
a little stealing it was one of his privileges as a savior of
humanity. If he was rough and brutal it was a sign of his fighting
spirit. Moreover, he could look forward to distinction and respect
for the rest of his life, with a long list of special privileges.
In every community in America, however small, there are local
notables whose notability rests wholly on the fact that they were
once drafted into some war or other…. Their general intelligence
is shown by the kind of ideas they advocate. They are, in the
main, bitter enemies of the liberty of the individual, and are
responsible for some of the worst corruptions of politics. The
most grasping of all politicians is the war veteran.25

Mencken,
in fact, was an arch “isolationist” who bitterly opposed American
entry into both World Wars I and II. He often remarked that he was
opposed to intervention in both wars, but that if America had
to intervene, it should have intervened on the other side. In
April, 1942, he wrote jocularly to a friend: “The coming summer
promises to provide Christian men with the best show seen on earth
since the Crusades. I am looking forward to it with the most eager
anticipations. I only hope that if the Japs actually take California
they are polite to you.”26 And to
his old friend Harry Elmer Barnes, Mencken wrote, in September,
1943, that “I am so constituted that I have to either Tell It All
or stay silent altogether. In this war, as in the last, it seems
to me to be most rational to save up what I have to say until it
can be said freely.”27

Mencken’s
reaction to the dropping of the atom bomb was understandably bitter.
Two years after the event, he wrote to Julian Boyd that

The atom
bomb, I have long preached, is the greatest invention that Yahweh
has made since Leprosy. Certainly it has given great glory to
the Christian physicists of this country. Try to imagine a decent
cannibal throwing it on a town full of women and children.28

Mencken
was particularly concerned with the well-nigh absolute suppression
of civil liberties that seems inevitably to stem from participation
in war, and in the conduct of World War I he saw the exemplar of
his jaundiced view of democracy, the State, foreign intervention,
and the common man. One of Mencken’s funniest “buffooneries” was
his proposal to decorate lavishly the “home front” heroes of World
War I:

What I propose
is a variety of the Distinguished Service Medal for civilians…to
mark off varying services to democracy…. for the university
president who prohibited the teaching of the enemy language in
his learned grove, heaved the works of Goethe out of the university
library, cashiered every professor unwilling to support Woodrow
for the first vacancy in the Trinity, took to the stump for the
National Security League, and made two hundred speeches in moving
picture theaters for this giant of loyal endeavor let no 100 percent
American speak of anything less than the grand cross of the order,
with a gold badge in stained glass, a baldric of the national
colors, a violet plug hat with a sunburst on the side, the privilege
of the floor of Congress, and a pension of $10,000 a year….

Palmer and
Burleson leave for special legislation. If mere university presidents,
such as Nicholas Murray Butler, are to have the grand cross, then
Palmer deserves to be rolled in malleable gold from head to foot,
and polished until he blinds the cosmos….29

There
is no space here to discuss Mencken’s other notable contributions
– his dissections of Veblen, Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt,
his being the first person to write books on Nietzsche or George
Bernard Shaw, his…. But let it suffice to say that America desperately
needs another Mencken, and that the reader should consider the above
a tantalizing sample of Menckeniana to spur him toward more of the
rich and copious product available. There is no better way of concluding
than to turn to Mencken’s noble and moving Credo, written for a
“What I Believe” series in a leading magazine:

I believe
that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless
to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous
in intent, can be anything but vicious.

I believe
that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily
make war upon liberty, and that the democratic form is as bad
as any of the other forms….

I believe
in complete freedom of thought and speech – alike for the
humblest man and the mightiest, and in the utmost freedom of conduct
that is consistent with living in organized society.

I believe
in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what
it is made of, and how it is run. I believe in the reality of
progress. I –

But the whole
thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is
better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better
to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better
to know than to be ignorant.30

Notes

  1. H. L. Mencken. A
    Mencken Chrestomathy
    (New York: Knopf. 1949). pp. 471-72.

  2. Guy
    J. Forgue. ed., Letters
    of H. L. Mencken
    (New York: Knopf. 1961), p. xiii.
  3. Ibid.,
    p. 189.
  4. Ibid.,
    p. 281.
  5. Mencken
    Chrestomathy, pp. 145-48.
  6. Ibid.,
    p. 146.
  7. H.
    L. Mencken, Prejudices:
    A Selection
    , ed. by James T. Farrell (New York: Vintage
    Books, 1958), pp. 180-82.
  8. H.
    L. Mencken. Minority
    Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks
    (New York: Knopf.
    1956). p. 217.
  9. Mencken.
    Prejudices, p. 187.
  10. Mencken. Minority Report. p. 217.

  11. Mencken
    Chrestomathy, pp. 384-387.
  12. Mencken.
    Prejudices. pp. 138-43.
  13. Mencken
    Chrestomathy, p. 259.
  14. Ibid.,
    p. 294.
  15. Mencken.
    Letters, p. xii.
  16. Ibid.,
    p. 295.
  17. [H.
    L. Mencken] , "Babbitt as Philosopher," The American
    Mercury (September, 1926), pp. 126-27. For a definitive
    bibliography of Mencken’s writings, see Betty Adler, comp.,

    H. L. M.: The Mencken Bibliography
    (Baltimore: Johns
    Hopkins Press, 1961).
  18. Mencken,
    Letters, pp. 374-75.
  19. Ibid.,
    p. 444.
  20. H.
    L. Mencken. The
    Days of H. L. Mencken
    (New York: Knopf, 1947), pp. 251-52.
  21. H. L. Mencken. A
    New Dictionary of Quotations: On Historical Principles from
    Ancient and Modern Sources
    (New York: Knopf, 1942).

  22. Mencken
    Chrestomathy, pp. 167-68.
  23. Mencken.
    Letters, p. 109.
  24. Mencken
    Chrestomathy, pp. 363-64.
  25. Ibid.,
    pp. 93-95.
  26. Mencken,
    Letters, p. 463.
  27. Ibid.,
    p. 476.
  28. Ibid.,
    p. 501.
  29. Mencken
    Chrestomathy, pp. 601-05.
  30. H.
    L. Mencken, "What I Believe," The Forum (September,
    1930), p. 139.

Murray
N. Rothbard (1926-1995), the founder of modern libertarianism
and the dean of the Austrian School of economics, was the author
of The
Ethics of Liberty
and For
a New Liberty
and many
other books and articles
. He was also academic vice president
of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the Center for Libertarian
Studies, and the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
.

Murray
Rothbard Archives

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