H.L. Mencken on Liberty and Government, by Jim Quinn

One of America’s greatest political commentators was H.L. Mencken. In the first half of the twentieth century he was known as the “Sage of Baltimore.” From Jim Quinn at theburningplatform.com:

Henry Louis (H.L.) Mencken was perhaps America’s most outspoken defender of liberty in the first half of the 20th Century.  And a major theme of his writings was that “Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.”

It is worth remembering some of the reasons he gave for that shame, since, by the same standards, the government is even more shameful today than when Mencken 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 rushed in a torrent 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…”

As our government has overflowed its proper and Constitutional banks, it has increasingly turned to tasks it cannot do well, if at all, and attracted many who are willing to not only overlook, but compound its failings, if only they can take the reins of power.  And this leads to no end of shameful behavior:

“All government is, in its essence, organized exploitation, and in virtually all of its existing forms it is the implacable enemy of every industrious and well-disposed man.”

“Every election is a sort of advance auction of stolen goods.”

“The storm center of lawlessness in every American State is the State Capitol.  It is there that the worst crimes are committed; it is there that lawbreaking attains to the estate and dignity of a learned profession; it is there that contempt for the laws is engendered, fostered, and spread broadcast.”

“Of government, at least in democratic states, it may be said briefly that it is an agency engaged wholesale, and as a matter of solemn duty, in the performance of acts which all self-respecting individuals refrain from as a matter of common decency.”

To continue reading: H.L. Mencken on Liberty and Government


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