David R. Henderson  

Mencken on Government

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Some of my Facebook friends are celebrating H.L. Mencken's birthday with their favorite quotes from Mencken. One that pops up again and again is this one:

Democracy is the theory that the common man knows what he wants and deserves to get it, good and hard.

That's my second-favorite Mencken quote on democracy. Here's my favorite:
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 X y is less than y.

Here is another favorite:
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, cruel, grasping and unintelligent.

In looking up quotes from Mencken, I was surprised to find this one, which I'm used to seeing on bumper stickers of cars driven by relatively left-wing people:
If you want peace, work for justice.

I like it even though I don't totally agree with it. I think a better way of working for peace is to work for freedom. So here's my quote, not from Mencken but from Henderson:
If you want peace, work for freedom.

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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory

COMMENTS (22 to date)
Greg G writes:

Yes, we know what forms of government Mencken hated, we just aren't sure exactly how he thought the question of government should be decided. He much preferred sniping at the ideas of others to advancing his own ideas. And he did sympathize with Germany in WWII, so there is that to provide some clues.

He was great at manufacturing quotable statements, no doubt.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Greg G,
Actually, Greg, he did NOT sympathize with Nazi Germany in WWII. He did sympathize with Germany during WWI, a very different proposition.

Greg G writes:


I am relying on the Mencken biography by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers for this claim although many others have also made it. This is not at all a hostile biography. According to her, Mencken was strongly pro-German in WWII but was wise enough to keep these views mostly private.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Greg G,
That's news to me. I'll have to check. Since the subject of my post is Mencken's views on government and since that's the issue you responded to, are you saying Mencken was pro-German government or simply pro-German?

Greg G writes:


Mencken hated all government. I doubt very much that he had any particular affection for the Nazi government. The problem is there is little evidence that he thought it was much worse than other governments and his silence on the Holocaust was inexcusable.

I will be interested in what you find because I am relying on this one source.

Don Boudreaux writes:

I've read nearly every word that Mencken ever published, and I have never encountered "If you want peace, work for justice." Perhaps he did write or say this line somewhere and I either missed it or don't remember it. (The latter is unlikely, given how ubiquitous it is on "Progressives'" bumper-stickers.)

And - that line just doesn't sound like Mencken. It's too pious a phrase to have escaped his typewriter or mouth.

So I doubt that Mencken is the source of that phrase. Yet, again, I confess that I might be mistaken about this matter.

Don Boudreaux writes:

I googled Mencken 'If you want peace' and found lots of quotations sites that attribute that phrase to Mencken, but I found not a single one that actually gives a source (say, p. 123 of Mencken's Chrestomathy). I did not look at all of the sites or links brought up by my google search, but I did look at about a dozen or so.

Several of the links suggest that the line was given popularity by a 1972 speech by Pope Paul VI - suggesting that the late Pontiff (or one of his speech writers) read Mencken. Color me skeptical.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Don Boudreaux,
I was skeptical too. That's what I meant when I said I was surprised. I agree that it doesn't sound like Mencken. It's too idealistic.

Russell Hanneken writes:

Have you read Notes on Democracy? It's audaciously elitist--so much so that I can't really defend it, except to say it's a fun read. Sample quote:

It remains impossible . . . to separate the democratic idea from the theory that there is a mystical merit, an esoteric and ineradicable rectitude, in the man at the bottom of the scale--that inferiority, by some strange magic, becomes a sort of superiority--nay, the superiority of superiorities. . . . This notion, as I hint, originated in the poetic fancy of gentlemen on the upper levels--sentimentalists who, observing to their distress that the ass was over-laden, proposed to reform transport by putting him into the cart.
libertarian jerry writes:

My favorite Mencken line is: "there are those that work for a living and then there are those that vote for a living."

Shane L writes:

I've seen quite bloodthirsty people talk about "no peace before justice" and the like. There will always be someone who perceives injustice - the world will never be perfectly just - so for some it's a recipe for a permanent state of violence. Not that it's meaningless, it does make sense to work towards a just society, but some people will use this as an excuse for aggression.

liberty writes:

I feel like I am acting the idiot today (another post here as well) responding to satire and humor with deadpan seriousness, as if I do not get the joke - but I do, and still want to comment.

On this quote: "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 X y is less than y." -- this is silly of course because putting our minds together does make us smarter, as the wisdom of crowds, crowdsourcing, and all those show, and as is common knowledge from experience. The problem with the formula of course is that we are not merely our imbelicity - we are also our smarts, our creativity, etc - so you do not just get x X y, you get x X Z, which is our genius as well.

liberty writes:

But also, wow -- reading the comments -- I did not know he was a NAZI sympathiser or a fascist-elitist in philosophy, as the quote above suggests. I hope that libertarians and others interested in liberty do not quote him approvingly, ignoring all that.

Orfeu writes:

@Russell Hanneken

That quote is great! I forgot how great that book is! I have to read it again.

David R. Henderson writes:

But also, wow -- reading the comments -- I did not know he was a NAZI sympathiser or a fascist-elitist in philosophy
It would have been against virtually everything he stood for for Mencken to have been a Nazi sympathizer or a fascist. Remember that Mencken wrote a lot of words denouncing FDR, who explicitly modeled some of his early New Deal after Mussolini's fascist economic policies. Even Greg G above, who cast aspersions on Mencken, admitted, after I pushed him, that he had no evidence that Mencken was sympathetic to the Nazi government.

Greg G writes:

It is true that am not charging that Mencken was sympathetic to the Nazi government.

I AM charging that he was more hostile to the American government than the Nazi government.

A6 writes:

"If you want peace, work for freedom."

Uh, no. With all those people working for rule, working for freedom is certain to cause conflict and very possibly violent conflict.

How about these:

(1) "Work for freedom."

(2) "If you want peace, surrender or die."

David R. Henderson writes:

@Greg G,
I AM charging that he was more hostile to the American government than the Nazi government.
If you're measuring by word count, you're almost certainly right, but for an obvious reason: the main government he wrote about was America's. If you went by my word count, you would find that I am way more hostile to the U.S. government than to Russia's government. That's the problem with word counts. I actually think Russia's government is substantially worse than America's. I just don't write about Russia's government much.

Greg G writes:


It's not about word count.

You are obviously right in everything you said about the word count point. Even so, your writings have made it very plain that you are more hostile to the Russian form of government than the American. You managed to easily make that clear without needing the extra words.

Mencken could have done the same regarding Nazi Germany. He chose not to.

Ak Mike writes:

Greg, you are wrong about Mencken. He was sharply critical of, and indeed hostile to the Nazis (who controlled the German government). He criticized them for persecuting the Jews, and criticized Roosevelt for not allowing Jewish refugees into the United States. He was exactly like Prof. Henderson, in jabbing at his own government's deficiencies, but seeing clearly the difference between it and the evil that was in control in Germany.

I have read one interview of Marion Elizabeth Rogers (at The Library of America), the author on whom you rely, where she notes that at a time (the late 1930's) when America was on the whole somewhat anti-Semitic, Mencken was supportive of Jews and sympathetic to their plight in Germany. Mencken hated Roosevelt, but plainly saw the difference between him and Hitler.

Greg G writes:

Ak Mike,

Yes, Mencken clearly was hostile to the Nazis as I said above. He was also extremely hostile to the American government. This hostility to the Nazis and concern for the Jews was not sufficient to make him want to see Germany defeated in WWII. It should have been. He had an affection for the German culture that he did not have for the American culture.

One of the things he preferred about Germany was that it was less democratic than the U.S. How did that work out?

My point is not that Mencken thought Roosevelt was personally worse than Hitler. My point is about who he wanted to see win the war and how that does, and should, affect his moral stature.

It is easy to find Mencken quotes about Jews and blacks that are racist by today's standards. Such remarks were very common by public figures at the time as you suggest in your comment. I don't attach a lot of weight to them. All accounts I have seen indicate that Mencken was respectful, fair and kind to the Jews and blacks he met in real life.

fnn writes:

Yes,it would have been better for Germany to have "won" (meaning "survived")the war-but not Germany under Hitler. FDR consistently spurned overtures made by the German opposition to Hitler:

War Crime

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