Last Sunday was the birthday of Henry Louis (H.L.) Mencken, a man whose written words I’ve read, pondered and quoted at length. Here, from Issues & Insights, is a neat tribute to the man and his thoughts. Excerpt:
Henry Louis (H.L.) Mencken, the Sage of Baltimore, born Sept. 12, 1880, was a newspaperman, essayist, satirist, social critic and perhaps America’s most outspoken defender of liberty in the first half of the 20th century. Reflecting the difference between what was defensible as consistent with preserving our rights and what government did, a major theme of his writings was that “Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.”
On his birthday, it is worth remembering some of the reasons Mencken offered to justify that shame, since, by his standards, our government is even more shameful today than when he 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 exploded in a torrent far 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.
All government … is against liberty.
Here’s my favorite bit from Mencken:
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.
All government … is against liberty.
I believe in only one thing: liberty; but I do not believe in liberty enough to want to force it upon anyone.
I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office.
All government is against liberty. Some governments, of course, are wont to move harder against liberty than others; as far as the United States have fallen on the freedom scale, we’re still a long ways from North Korea. But the arc of government always bends in that direction.
In spite of my usual optimism, I’m not sanguine about the future of the American republic. Why? Because I’ve read a lot of history. It is in the nature of government to grow always larger and more intrusive. And, as Mencken points out, all government is against liberty. It’s a ratchet, not a dial, and thus only moves the one way. I’m not saying that a return to traditional American liberty-based government is impossible, but I wouldn’t bet a nickel on it happening.
What’s surprising these days is that it all seems to be happening so quickly. Actions by government – mass lockdowns, imprisonment of political dissenters, corruption of the military, partisan prosecutions by Imperial law enforcement -just seem to be spinning out of control.
Maybe, given honest elections, we could hold the bad things at bay a little longer. But we can’t rely on honest elections any more, either. Meanwhile, we can look back on Mencken’s work, realize once again how prescient he was, and wait for the next shoe to drop.