H.L. Mencken: The Joyous Libertarian

In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Mencken's birth REASON reprints a classic essay.

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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's 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 aesthetic 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 cliché, "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.

The tragedy—for us, not for Mencken himself—is that 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 that 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 1920s, abandoned Mencken to enlist in the ranks of the intensified Uplift and the more extravagant wowsers of the 1930s.

The very scorners of the politicians and political nostrums of the '20s promptly and fiercely subscribed to the far more pernicious nostrums of the political quacks of the New Deal. The same Menckenians who clearsightedly 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 "booboisie." But it was a calamity for the country.

UNIFYING INDIVIDUALISM

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 thoroughgoing 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 that 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 "nonpolitical" 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 aesthetic 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.

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 lifelong 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." At another time he wrote that he believed in absolute individual liberty "up to the limit of the unbearable, and even beyond."

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."

GOVERNMENT EXPOSED

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 significance that robbing the government is everywhere regarded as a crime of less magnitude than robbing an individual?…

…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.

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."

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 streetwalkers. 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.

One of the major forces keeping governmental tyranny unchecked, Mencken pointed out, is 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."

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 toothbrushes, and execute the droit de seigneur upon the housemaid?"

THE CITIZEN'S REVENGE

Mencken was excelled by no one 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 subject 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, 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…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.…

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 jackass—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!

BABBITTRY VS. CAPITALISM

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

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.

His old friend, Hamilton Owens, writes of Mencken's 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."

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.

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."

The great individualist Albert Jay Nock has written that, while in the 1920s he was generally considered a flaming "radical" and in the 1930s 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 1920s 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 1930s Mencken directed his major attacks against the major threat to liberty of that era: the New Deal. The former Menckenites of the 1920s and his new-found conservative champions of the 1930s, 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 aesthetic 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 capitalism 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.

One of the delightful aspects of Mencken, indeed, is the constancy of his views. As he once, at the age of 60, 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."

HOSTILITY TO SUPPRESSION

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."

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 nonconformity.

Mencken's atheism is, again, well known, but for him passionate hostility was reserved for those religious groups that 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 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 nonsensical 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.

MILITARY FOLLY

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, with… the constant expectation of release on some near tomorrow—not as wards of nosey cops and parole officers, but as heroes.…

…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.

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." And to his old friend Harry Elmer Barnes, Mencken wrote in September 1943: "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."

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 I 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.

There is no space here to discuss Mencken's other notable contribuions—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 tantalizng 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.

Murray Rothbard, an economist at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute of New York, is a REASON Viewpoint columnist. This article is reprinted, in shortened form, from the New Individualist Review, July 1962.

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