Friday, February 8, 2019

Mencken on Liberty in a Democracy

Mencken on Liberty in a Democracy
Thomas Allen

    In 1926, H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) wrote Notes on Democracy in which he expressed his views on democracy and related issues. He was a journalist, satirist, and critic and a libertarian and one of the leaders of the Old Right. In his book, he describes liberty in a democracy, pages 157-162. Below is an overview of his discussion on liberty in a democracy; my comments are in brackets.
    Whenever the liberties of the people “are invaded and made a mock of in a gross and contemptuous manner,” as occurred “in the United States during the reign of Wilson,” some observers always marvel that people bear such “outrage with so little murmuring.” About such observation, Mencken remarks, “Such observers only display their unfamiliarity with the elements of democratic science. The truth is that the common man’s love of liberty, like his love of sense, justice and truth, is almost wholly imaginary.” [The response of most people to 9-11 supports Mencken. Their quick surrender of liberty to the ruling elite shows their lack of love of liberty.] Unfortunately, for the lovers of liberty, the common man, of whom the masses comprise, is not “happy when free; he is uncomfortable, a bit alarmed, and intolerably lonely. He longs for the warm, reassuring smell of the herd, and is willing to take the herdsman with it.” Thus, “[l]iberty is not a thing for such as he. He cannot enjoy it rationally himself, and he can think of it in others only as something to be taken away from them.”
    When liberty is a reality, it is the “exclusive possession of a small and disreputable minority of men, like knowledge, courage and honour. A special sort of man is needed to understand it, nay, to stand it — and he is inevitably an outlaw in democratic societies.” Mencken continues, “The average man doesn’t want to be free. He simply wants to be safe.” [Hence, the response of the average person to 9-11: throw away liberty for safety — and end up with neither. The common man, the inferior man, the democratic man, fails to realize that without liberty, real safety cannot exist.]
    Mencken cites Nietzsche as saying that liberty “was something that, to the general, was too cold to be borne.” However, Nietzsche “believed that there was an unnatural, drug-store sort of yearning for it in all men, and so he changed Schopenhauer’s will-to-live into a will-to-power, i.e., a will-to-free-function.” [Friedrich Nietzsche {1844 –1900} was a German philosopher, cultural critic, poet, and philologist. Arthur Schopenhauer {1788 –1860} was a German philosopher.] Mencken believes that Nietzsche “went too far, and in the wrong direction: he should have made it, on the lower levels, a will-to-peace.” Mencken remarks, “What the common man longs for in this world, before and above all his other longings, is the simplest and most ignominious sort of peace the peace of a trusty in a well-managed penitentiary. He is willing to sacrifice everything else to it. He puts it above his dignity and he puts it above his pride. Above all, he puts it above his liberty.” [As statists promise such peace, statists always have an advantage over lovers of liberty, libertists, in a democracy.]
    The common man loves peace and safety far more than he loves liberty. This may “explains his veneration for policemen, in all the forms they take — his belief that there is a mysterious sanctity in law, however absurd it may be in fact.” Mencken adds, “A policeman is a charlatan who offers, in return for obedience, to protect him [the common man] (a) from his superiors, (b) from his equals, and (c) from himself. This last service, under democracy, is commonly the most esteemed of them all.” [In reality, the ultimate job of the police is to protect the ruling elite, the real powers behind the political leaders, from the masses, i.e., the common man.] “In the United States, at least theoretically, it is the only thing that keeps ice-wagon drivers, Y.M.C.A. secretaries, insurance collectors and other such human camels from smoking opium, ruining themselves in the night clubs, and going to Palm Beach with Follies girls.” [To Mencken, the primary job of the police is to prevent personal vice.]
    Although the common man is deceived about liberty, “he starts from a sound premise: to wit, that liberty is something too hot for his hands — or, as Nietzsche put it, too cold for his spine. Worse, he sees in it something that is a weapon against him in the hands of his enemy.”
    Mencken adds, “The history of democracy is a history of efforts to force successive minorities to be untrue to their nature. Democracy, in fact, stands in greater peril of the free spirit than any sort of despotism ever heard of.” He continues, “The despot, at least, is always safe in one respect: his own belief in himself cannot be shaken. But democracies may be demoralized and run amok, and so they are in vast dread of heresy, as a Sunday-school superintendent is in dread of scarlet women, light wines and beer, and the unreadable works of Charles Darwin.” Then he remarks, “It would be unimaginable for a democracy to submit serenely to such gross dissents as Frederick the Great not only permitted, but even encouraged.” He notes, “Once the mob is on the loose, there is no holding it. So the subversive minority must be reduced to impotence; the heretic must be put down.”
    If a primary purpose “of all civilized government is to preserve and augment the liberty of the individual, then surely democracy accomplishes it less efficiently than any other form.” [The dictatorship of the proletariat does a much worse job. But, then, Mencken considers the dictatorship of the proletariat to be a form of democracy.] If the individual is worth thinking about, then “the superior individual is worth more thought than his inferiors.” Yet, “the superior individual  . . . is the chief victim of the democratic process. It not only tries to regulate his acts; it also tries to delimit his thoughts. . . . The aim of democracy is to break all such free spirits to the common harness. It tries to iron them out, to pump them dry of self-respect, to make docile John Does of them.” [Nearly all laws coming out of Congress and the statehouses seem to have as their primary objective the breaking of all free spirits to a common harness.]
    Democracy measures its success by the extent that it brings down superior men and makes them common. “The measure of civilization is the extent to which they resist and survive. Thus the only sort of liberty that is real under democracy is the liberty of the have-nots to destroy the liberty of the haves.” [Thus, the inferior man is a strong supporter of the welfare state because it brings down the superior man and destroys the liberties of the haves.] Mencken adds, “This liberty is supposed, in some occult way, to enhance human dignity.” In one aspect, perhaps, it does: “The have-not gains something valuable when he acquires the delusion that he is the equal of his betters. It may not be true but even a delusion, if it augments the dignity of man, is something.” Under this apparent reality, “the peasant no longer pulls his forelock when he meets the baron, he is free to sue and be sued, he may denounce Huxley as a quack.” [Thomas Huxley {1825–1895} was an English biologist and a prominent proponent of evolution, in which Mencken ardently believed.] Unfortunately, as the inferior is raised, the superior is lowered. Mencken notes, “If democracy really loves the dignity of man, then it kills the thing it loves.” It reduces all to a common level.

Copyright © 2017 by Thomas Coley Allen.

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