Carpe Diem

H.L. Mencken on elections, politics, government

H.L. Mencken is often regarded as one of the most influential American writers of the early 20th century. It’s election season now, so it might be a good time to feature some of his quotes on elections, politics, democracy, and government.

1. Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.
2. A good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.
3. A politician is an animal which can sit on a fence and yet keep both ears to the ground.
4. Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.
5. Democracy is also a form of worship. It is the worship of jackals by jackasses.
6. Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage.
7. Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.
8. Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.
9. If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.

Read more Mencken quotes here.

60 thoughts on “H.L. Mencken on elections, politics, government

  1. I dread this election. My feeling is it will be a disaster and truly reflect to the world how broken our “democracy” is. The hands involved in confusing the public are many. It seems to me fair (dare I say even democratic) to make sure any company charged with vote counting /tallying should be at arms length of any candidate.

  2. The problem with this is… democracy as opposed to what? dictatorship. The great thinkers aren’t writing works today like in the days of hobbes and locke. I’m sure the next great idea, and defence of capitalim is out there somewhere, but where?

    • The problem with this is… democracy as opposed to what?

      Let’s try a republic. I’m shocked by how many people don’t know that this is what the United States is supposed to be.

      Personally, I’ve made peace with the fact that regardless of our supposed intellectual progress, might still makes right in reality. That’s the actual principle the world has always followed. The majority of humanity isn’t really opposed to lying and oppressing, they’re just against being the ones lied to and oppressed. Politicians seek to turn citizens into clients of the state in order to weaken them and consolidate power with the state they control.

      I still don’t like it, but I don’t think there’s a realistic way of keeping the state weak and small, so anyone who doesn’t get away in time will become a serf.

      • re: government and elections

        even Republics are operated according to who wins the election – you know ..that old fashioned might makes right…

        • Theoretically, Larry, constitutional republics like the USA don’t.

          Of course, in practice, they do. The constitution, designed to be inconvenient for the elites, quickly becomes irrelevant.

      • methinks … you hit the nail on the head. Democracy is a tyranny by another name. it is tyranny of the majority. in that sense a so called Democracy has much in common with a dictatorship. Even Plato warned in his work The Republic that tyranny arrises from democracy. our founding fathers were very aware of the difference between a Republic and Democracy. Today, we seem to have forgotten where we came from.

        • Yup. Democracy is the stated goal of the Communist Manifesto because Socialism is achieved through Democracy. Democracy was never the goal of the founding fathers and isn’t even mentioned in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence.

    • In a very broad sense, yes. The difference is the majority does not rule in capitalism. In capitalism, if 75% of people think blue is a good color for a tie and 25% think green is a good color, the 75% get blue and 25% get green. In a democracy, everyone gets blue regardless if you like it or not.

      • re: ” In a democracy, everyone gets blue regardless if you like it or not.”

        not when it comes to government!

        the folks in Indiana might get a winner takes all Congressman. Ditto for Virginia, NC, California, Texas, etc but we hardly get a majority rule (usually).

          • re: Democracy, Republics and majority “rule”.

            special translation for Methinks:

            you might have a winner-take-all election in Va, and other states but it don’t guarantee you a winner-take-all govt rule.

          • Okay, now I understand. However, we’re not talking about who gets elected. Once the majority of reps vote blue, everyone gets blue.

            BTW, Lar, I had not seen that David Friedman talk Sprewell linked to below before, but it is excellent (except that David keeps shifting toward and away from the microphone, creating audio hell). Give it a listen.

        • Larry,

          To keep with my example, if Congress votes on new ties, and blue wins the vote, then everyone gets new ties regardless of what they actually want.

          Another example is any election: regardless of how many votes a candidate actually gets, the majority winner gets the seat. The other guy gets squat.

          How about votes on a new tax? If a new tax passes Congress, everyone must pay it, not just those who favor it.

          Politics is a winner-take-all game, regardless of the system you have. Capitalism does not work that way. The majority of people’s desire to purchase Fifty Shades of Gray does not impede my ability to buy Game of Thrones. The majority of American’s desire to purchase Velveeta does not affect my ability to buy real cheese.

          • Let me just bring this around full circle:

            It is a little silly to compare capitalism to democracy since capitalism is an economic system and democracy is a political system.

            However, Hydra’s original statement was that the “collective wisdom of the ignorant” statement can be applied to both capitalism and democracy. In very general terms, that is true. The ignorant shop just as much as the enlightened. But in capitalism, the actions of the ignorant have an effect so small as to be negligible on the enlightened. In a democracy, the actions of the ignorant directly control the actions of the enlightened.

          • @Jon

            I take your point .. fair enough…

            but legislation about blue and red ties often goes through the sausage machine and appears as red and blue ties sometimes.

            My point is that in Democracy or even Representative Republic governance that it’s seldom at the end – a complete winner-takes-all outcome.

            Compromise usually is involved to get “something” to pass . right?

            I’ll stipulate that things like ObamaCare – and Medicare Part B sometimes make it through on pure partisan lines.

            are we agreeing or not?

          • No, I don’t think I have explained myself.

            I understand what you are saying: everything requires compromise, so everybody gets a little of what they want. But even then, what of the folks who don’t want compromise?

            My point is that in a democracy, all that matters is the opinion of 50.1% of the voters. Those who disagree with the outcome still must put up with it. In capitalism, those who disagree with the outcome can choose not to participate in it.

            We are kind of comparing apples to tomatoes here, so I am trying to speak in very general terms.

          • Larry, now you’re just talking about horsetrading. A Dem has legislation he wants passed and he convinces a Repub to vote for it in exchange for voting for something he Repub wants. That’s what political compromise is.

            You still end up with one piece of legislation and if you are against that piece of legislation, tough for you.

          • re: horsetrading and governance and winner takes all

            well if you own the POTUS and the Congress, you probably can achieve some semblance of winner takes all.

            but otherwise – as we can see right now – legislation cannot get through without some kind of compromise.

            As bad as all of this seems to be, it’s a far sight better than totalitarianism.

          • Even with compromise, it is winner take all.

            Back to the ties (I really did not mean for this metaphor to be dragged out so long, but what the Hell). We have red and blue. The two sides compromise and make maroon. Those who wanted red are SOL. Those who wanted blue are SOL. Everyone gets maroon.

            When a government passes a law, it must be obeyed, no matter when people’s individual feelings are on the law. I must pay taxes. I must obey the speed limit. I must not buy a lottery ticket if I am under 18. We cannot legally disobey a law we find unjust (ethically is a different story, but let’s not go there right now). However, I can refuse to deal with a company I believe behaves unethically. I can refuse to buy a book that spreads ideas I believe to be false.

            You can compromise all you want, but the end result remains the same: the law passed must be obeyed.

          • these discussions seem to inevitably slide toward the idea that any/all government is a failure.

            right?

            not sure the point..

          • re: “Jon tried”.

            he did and he’s a good guy but listening to you guys is a real chore sometimes because I can’t really calibrate if you are unhappy with THIS KIND of government are just opposed to govt in general no matter what kind.

            The former is understandable, the latter inexplicable given realities.

            Methinks.. I had no luck with that link.. wanna give it again?

          • No, it’s not a failure. That’s not what I am going for. I am trying to point out the difference between democratic/political decisions and economic ones.

            Mencken’s observation of democracy is that democracy treats the collective wisdom of ignorant people (and keep in mind that ignorant does not mean stupid) as brilliance. Think of the “man on the street” mentality. “The man on the street wants no Chinese goods, so tariffs must be a good idea and we will implement it for everybody.” That sort of thing.

            Hydra then said the same idea can be applied to capitalism. In very broad strokes, that is true. In the same way that an apple and tomato are alike because they are both round and red. But the nitty gritty details show this to not be the case. “The man on the street doesn’t want Chinese goods so he can pay higher prices for American goods. Those who want the cheaper Chinese goods can buy those.” Do you see the difference?

            There are many things to celebrate about democracy. But we must remember a simple rule: it is still the will of the majority being foisted on the minority. To forget this spells doom for a free and honest society. This one simple rule should always be considered when passing legislation.

          • Regarding unhappiness with government:

            I can only speak for myself, Larry. There are others who may be more in favor of anarchy than I am. I know there are less.

            The main thing libertarians (I am using the lowercase because I am not referring to the political party) are concerned about is government. Most of us (to varying degrees) see government as a necessary evil. It has a role, but for the most part should remain impotent. Many of the complaints we have about government refer to all governments, not just a democratic one. What most of us get upset about is government excess. Unnecessary government involvement. That is often interpreted as anarchy, but that is far too simple. It is much more complex than that.

            There are great divides among libertarians as to the role of government. There are bleeding-heart libertarians (BHL) who allow for some social programs. There are the more conservatives who would like to see less social programs. You have the “slash and burn” libertarians like myself who see an extremely limited government role.

            But we all recognize that government is a construct of man, and as such, it is subject to the same flaws as man. Pointing out these flaws does not mean we are upset with the government or angry with democracy. We are all trying to work towards a better society. Us libertarians are just trying to do our part by expressing caution in power and faith in benevolence.

          • Jon- thanks – you laid it out well.

            and so what government ends up small, large, good, bad, etc

            … is decided by those who are governed and vote.

            and … most people seem to end up wanting more government than libertarians do – and then perhaps later think it’s way more than they thought they wanted.

            but what strikes me most – is how many government around the world – that have had all sorts of different paths to current status – are … libertarian.

            I keep asking.. and this is not a snarly challenge – but what are the best current, existing examples?

            Because in my mind if there are existing examples – even if not perfect – that means it is possible.

            If there are no existing examples – it makes me wonder if we have theory but no practice paths.

            There’s a lot of government in the world – a lot of sub-nation regions, a lot of local government.

            and I think – searching for and finding good examples of libertarian governance is an important thing.

            without such examples, it makes it sound like more a theory than anything really possible.

            that’s my story and I’m sticking to it! :-)

          • At the state and local level, there are many examples of libertarian governance. New Hampshire has libertarian elements. I believe the mayor of Roland, Iowa is a libertarian (random fact of the day).

            But you will never find anything in its pure form. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, however. There are no purely democratic governments, no purely socialist, no purely communist. All of certain elements of each within them.

            Nothing exists in its pure form. Even oxygen exists only as a diatomic.

            I get the feeling you are an Aristotelian thinker, Larry. By the way, that is a good thing.

          • re: local libertarian

            we are having that experience!

            We have elected a libertarian type BOS and they are asking questions, kicking butt, taking names, and making changes and I’m watching to see how far they go in their cuts before the squealing starts.

            thanks for the compliment! and I bet there similar going on with you!

          • thanks for the compliment! and I bet there similar going on with you!

            Haha thank you, but I am much more of a Platonic thinker.

            An Aristotelian thinker follows the metaphysical ideas of Aristotle: that which I can sense and experience is real. For example, I know this chair is real because I am sitting in it.

            A Platonic thinker follows the metaphysical ideas of Plato: Reality are ideas and the actions taken by man are just approximations of those ideas. For example, the chair is real, but I am not sitting on the chair. The chair is an idea and this thing is just an approximation of a chair.

            I am simplifying it considerably, but I have no desire to launch into an explanation of metaphysics at this time, just as you probably have no desire to read it.

            I should actually probably clean up from dinner and do my dishes…Have a good night, y’all.

      • The difference is the majority does not rule in capitalism. In capitalism, if 75% of people think blue is a good color for a tie and 25% think green is a good color, the 75% get blue and 25% get green.

        If 75% of the people buy blue ties, the people who want green will find that their choices are much more limited than for those who want blue ties.

        In a very large sense the majority does rule under capitalism: consider Betamax or Edsel. Their rule is not complete, but majority rule is not complete under democracy either: by now we understand that government has an OBLIGATION to protect its minorities from the vagaries of mob rule.

        • The majority does not necessarily rule in our democracy. The President can lose the popular vote but still win in the Electoral College, so that might be minority rule. That’s huge next month. Each state gets two Senators regardless of their population, so one of the three branches of government is always minority rule by design. The Supreme Court is not majority rule and their very existence was designed so the majority cannot run over the minority. The House of Representatives is the only branch designed strictly as majority rule and they even need a 2/3 vote, or super majority, to override a veto.

          Some people would also say that special interest groups represent a minority viewpoint that makes our laws that rule our country. I don’t have that opinion myself because I believe everyone is part of some special interest group in how everything gets divvied up or pays for everything (male, female, black, white, old, young, rich, poor, middle income, union, non-union, different religions, no religions . . . .). My definition of what most people think of a special interest group is somebody else got something I did not get.

          • The Supreme Court is not majority rule and their very existence was designed so the majority cannot run over the minority.

            No, it isn’t. FDR’s court-packing attempt followed by the craven switch in time to save nine proved beyond a doubt that the SCOTUS has and will continue to move from an institution which ensured government is limited to the powers enumerated by the constitution to a meaningless rubber stampers in black robes.

            One recent and notable example is Obamacare – a piece of vile legislation, still opposed by 2/3 of the country but which will be crashed on our heads starting next year.

            Although, that’s not really minority rule so much as it’s politicians ruling the serfs, successfully evading their, for all practical purposes, constitutional restraints.

        • Do you really believe that 25% of 10 million people buying green ties can’t dictate to producers through buying decisions what they prefer and get it?

          Get a clue. Learn some economics and pay special attention to the lessons on markets.

          Betamax systems lost market share vs VHS systems until they could not be produced at a profit. Betamax manufacturers licensed the rival technology and began producing what consumers wanted – VHS. Edsel never did gain enough sales to prosper as a separate Ford model line. That was the power of consumer choice dictating what producers would provide for them. A continuing minority market share would have meant both products would have continued to exist.

          For most of the history of personal computers Apple has had and does have about 10% of the market. Do you think Apple customers are worse off than others? If so why do you suppose they continue to buy those products?

          It is producers innovating and responding to consumer preferences that determine their success or failure. Consumers decide what will be produced, not producers.

        • In the real world there are thousands of different color and style ties available because there are millions of consumers who want that large number of choices. there is no majority of tie buyers.

        • If 75% of the people buy blue ties, the people who want green will find that their choices are much more limited than for those who want blue ties.

          Come now, you don’t believe that, do you? Surely the existence of some 2,000 microbreweries in the US alone, compared to 22 large breweries, shows how important niche markets are.

          Especially now with the Internet, niche markets have never been more powerful. What you describe may have been true a century ago, but not any more. I can jump on the Internet and buy anything I want and have it shipped right to my house.

          • Remember that a company does not need to control a majority of the market, or even a sizable minority, to exist. I just needs to control enough to justify its existence (ie, pay its bills).

  3. how about this quotes from one of our founding fathers?:

    democracy never lasts long. it soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. there never was a democracy that did not committ suicide. John Adams

    we could find many other similar quotes from other founding fathers.

    neither the constitution nor the declaration mentions the word Democracy.

    Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos.
    John Marshall, Chief Justice from 1801 to 1835

  4. Another favorite of mine from Mencken:

    “When the city mob fights it is not for liberty, but for ham and cabbage. When it wins, its first act is to destroy every for of freedom that is not directed wholly to that end.”

  5. Hydra’s original statement was that the “collective wisdom of the ignorant” statement can be applied to both capitalism and democracy. In very general terms, that is true. The ignorant shop just as much as the enlightened. But in capitalism, the actions of the ignorant have an effect so small as to be negligible on the enlightened.

    ==================================

    I don’t think so. Ignorant people buy a lot of cheap crappy stuff, and the producers respond. The result is a capitalist race to the bottom.

    Are you suggesting the enlightened capitalist does not have to respond to the market? Are you suggesting that the enlightened buyer does not have to care what the ignorant buy, as long as the system also supplies what he wants to buy?

    • The result is a capitalist race to the bottom.

      Except this is empirically untrue.

      Are you suggesting that the enlightened buyer does not have to care what the ignorant buy, as long as the system also supplies what he wants to buy?

      Yes, that is exactly what I am saying.

  6. Friedman is a good public speaker and makes good points but he’s like a lot of these folks in that he ignores realities.

    he talks about running away as an individual from an advancing column of soldiers …

    but our folks join the armed services and go to Afghanistan – willingly.

    he cites an intersection where people acting “rationally” will clog up the intersection.

    Well, the reality is that at about 99% of our intersections, people do NOT do this normally.

    I’ve heard folks like him before. He’s easy to listen to and he makes good points but they are apart from how the real world – really works.

    I don’t have a lot of patience for folks who simply ignore he way the world really works when it “violates” their theories of how it should work.

    We have to deal with the way the world actually works.

    this is why we have no real free-market countries in the entire world.

    It’s not government that screws it up. It’s people.

    People assert themselves in a wide variety of ways to include doing what Friedman simply assumes from the get go in his marching army scenario.

    WHERE did the marching army come from that he says would be rationale to run away from?

    there is no land in the entire world – where people live where they have not got together to define the borders and assert control.

    when you find a place that does not do this – I’ll be more convinced of the possibility of a “free market” place.

    until then – the BEST Places in the world with the LEAST government and LOWEST Taxes and the most free markets are what? They’re 3rd world.

    How can you reconcile this? The best countries have the most govt and the worst countries have the least govt.

    I find the free-market economist types similar to the religious folk who prosthelytize their beliefs no matter how disconnected they are from the real world.

    they”re passionate but oh so out of touch with realities.

    they say you have to “believe” with all your heart …

    indeed.

    If I were a “rational” person why would I EVER give money to others who are in need?

    the “rational” person acquires as much wealth as he/she can and does not give it away .. it makes no sense to give it away, right?

    • So Larry, basically you’re telling us you didn’t understand a damn thing David Friedman said.

      Okay. Well, at least you gave it a go.

      • ” So Larry, basically you’re telling us you didn’t understand a damn thing David Friedman said. Okay. Well, at least you gave it a go.”

        I understand it quite well. It’s your standard ‘if the world were Libertarian” blather.

        the world does not work the way the man says.

        He invents an army marching on people to ask what a rational person would do – RUN but he totally ignores how such an army (of people who might also die) comes to be in the first place.

        The problem you guys have is you don’t understand how a country with boundaries is formed and governed.

        THAT’s WHAT DEFINES most everything including how free the markets will be (or not).

        ya’ll totally miss the most important things sometimes.

        • Larry,

          David is not advocating a political position. He is illustrating an economic concept called “market failure”, which has nothing to do with politics at all. You are meant to understand how each individual person behaving rationally can make the group worse off. And he’s not making up lines of men with spears (or guns). That’s how wars were fought historically, but that’s not the point.

          He then expands on that market failure concept to explain why rational voters don’t spend the time to inform themselves of the issues. It is rational for them not to do so, but it makes the whole group worse off because better informed voters make better choices. That too has nothing to do with Libertarianism.

          Did you even TRY to understand the concepts? Or listen beyond the spears?

          • re: ” economic concept called “market failure”, which has nothing to do with politics at all”

            Methinks – “market failure” occurs in an economic system that is controlled by government.

            He’s talking theoretically as if it would or should work even in a government construct and it’s in m view a fantasy.

            He needs to deal with market failure in the context of the world we live in right now – where are most markets are within the confines or a government.

            I DO think this is one of the problems with Libertarianism.

            There needs to be a practical approach because govt is not going to go away.

          • “There needs to be a practical approach because govt is not going to go away.

            I agree, LarryG. I also predict most of our elected leaders will be either Republican or Democratic for the foreseeable future. The most that any of the other parties can hope to gain is inclusion of some of their more popular ideas into the major party platforms to pick up some votes. That’s why labor, even in its heyday, did not try to form a labor party in the U.S.

          • Methinks

            Larry is stumped by the word “rational”. He thinks it means something else.

            Well, that’s ONE problem anyway.

          • “rational” is when you realize that theory is not practice.

            “rational” is when you realize that no land on earth in without boundaries and some kind of govt rule.

            Libertarianism is more a concept than reality.

            he man in the video blathers on about a hypothetical situation involving two armed groups and whether one should stay and fight or run.

            think about that. He using a construct that involves people banding together to achieve some goal – to overpower and control other groups – and their market ideologies also.

            that’s how the world works. There are no countries without borders and without someone in control of the land within the borders.

            there are no countries who economy is fundamentally libertarianism.

            there are “libertarian” “principles” but the only countries that truly come close to Libertarian economies are 3rd world countries where the govt is weak, small and where other things like property rights and rule of law ALSO are weak and less protected.

            it’s imminently “rational” to acknowledge such realities.

  7. Ok, so the USA is a “representative” democracy (republic). how is the end result ACTUALLY different from a direct democracy? Seriously. I don’t know enough about the topic to hold a stern oppinion. inform me.

    What is the general consensus of anarcho-capitalism v. representative democracy here?

    • A direct democracy would have every voting age United State’s citizen proposing and voting on every piece of legislation. That’s not very practical, so we elect people to represent us in a representative democracy (republic). That does not mean they will vote the way we want them to vote (the most you get is a general direction/platform they follow). If you don’t like their direction, you communicate to them your position and/or you vote them out next time if you think the the other person is better.

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