What Did Mr. Mencken Believe?

Terry Teachout's new biography of H.L. Mencken, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L Mencken, is getting widely huzzahed. Critic Jonathan Yardley, writing in the December issue of The Atlantic, calls it the best book on Mencken yet; no small praise from someone who admits he once had a contract from Random House to write one but had to back out when other professional obligations interfered.

Yardley ends his review by saying that, contra Teachout, he doesn't think Mencken's "social and political views...have become a resurgent strain in American thought." If, as Yardley insists on characterizing those views, they are a peculiar "conservatism" that was "more a state of mind than an ideology," he has a point.

But as modern libertarians have long recognized -- see Murray Rothbard's essay "H.L. Mencken: The Joyous Libertarian," which originally appeared in 1962 in the pathbreaking libertarian student journal from the University of Chicago, New Individualist Review (and was reprinted in Reason in our December 1980 issue) -- Mencken's combination of relentless opposition to busybody comstockery and moralistic reformism, combined with contempt for government in almost all its forms, was far more libertarian than conservative.

Yardley, manfully avoiding this conclusion, quotes Mencken as saying he was "constitutionally unable to believe in anything absolutely." But he misses a Mencken observation that Rothbard quoted: "I believe in only one thing and that thing is human liberty." If you can't see the libertarian in Mencken, you aren't seeing him altogether clearly.

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    Teachout participated in a book forum here at the Cato Institute (where I intern) with commentary from the modern-day Mencken P.J. O'Rourke. Teachout confirmed that Mencken was, in essence, a libertarian thinker, but also insisted that it be understood that Mencken was by no means an idealogue or even a consisten thinker. His opinions vacilated quite a bit over the years, but never enough to discredit his penchant for liberty. The best quote of the day came from O'Rourke (not a 100% accurate quotation): "Mencken was alive and well to see FDR wheeled up the handicapped access ramp to the gates of hell"

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    In an interview recorded by the Library of Congress in 1948, Mencken said he believed that the right to free speech was constrained only by the right to privacy. He gave an example of an atheist fulminating against Christianity. The atheist, he said, is (or should be) free to state his views where others who want to hear them may hear them, but he is not free to stand on the steps of a church on Sunday morning and harangue worshipers arriving for services.

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