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Sunday, June 24, 2018

Ambrose Bierce’s ‘Devil’s Dictionary’: A Satire that Foreshadowed the Absurdity of Modern Politics

America’s current political theater seems to make Ambrose Bierce a prophet.

Ambrose Bierce was once described as “the forgotten brother of Mark Twain,” who echoed Twain’s view that “Irreverence is the champion of liberty and its one sure defense.” Because of his way with words, “Public figures quaked in fear of his satirical pen.”

Bierce is most remembered for The Devil’s Dictionary, a collection of creative definitions skewering society. Since politics and its role in society has not exactly improved since he wrote, and Americans face another congressional election on the near horizon, it is worth commemorating Bierce’s June 24th birthday by revisiting his understanding of “the form of government where everyone gets what the majority deserves.”

Adherent: A follower who has not yet obtained all that he expects to get.

Amnesty: The state’s magnanimity to those offenders whom it would be too expensive to punish.

Arena: In politics, an imaginary rat-pit in which the statesman wrestles with his record.

Capitol: The seat of misgovernment.

Conservative: A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from a Liberal who wishes to replace them with others.

Consul: …a person who, having failed to secure an office from the people, is given one by the Administration on condition that he leave the country.

Corsair: A politician of the seas.

Elector: One who enjoys the sacred privilege of voting for the man of another man’s choice.

Executive: An officer of the Government, whose duty it is to enforce the wishes of the legislative power until such time as the judicial department shall be pleased to pronounce them invalid and of no effect.

Incumbent: A person of the liveliest interest to the outcumbents.

Influence: In politics, a visionary quo given in exchange for a substantial quid.

Justice: A commodity which is a more or less adulterated condition the State sells to the citizen as a reward for his allegiance, taxes and personal service.

Lawful: Compatible with the will of a judge having jurisdiction.

Minister: …an officer sent into a foreign country as the visible embodiment of his sovereign’s hostility.

Opposition: …the party that prevents the Government from running amok by hamstringing it.

Out-of-doors: That part of one’s environment upon which no government has been able to collect taxes.

Plebiscite: A popular vote to ascertain the will of the sovereign.

Politician: An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared.

Politics: A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.

Precedent: In law, a previous decision, rule or practice which, with the absence of a definitive statute, has whatever authority a Judge may choose to give it, thereby greatly simplifying his task of doing as he pleases.

President: The leading figure in a small group of men of whom—and of whom only—it is positively known that immense numbers of their countrymen did not want any of them for President.

Quorum: A sufficient number of members of a deliberative body to have their own way.

Referendum: A law for submission of proposed legislation to a popular vote to learn the nonsensus of public opinion.

Reform: A thing that mostly satisfies reformers opposed to reformation.

Representative: In national politics, a member of the Lower House in this world, and without discernible hope of promotion in the next.

Revolution: In politics, an abrupt change in the form of misgovernment… whereby the welfare and happiness of the people were advanced a full half-inch.

Senate: A body of elderly gentlemen charged with high duties and misdemeanors.

Vote: The instrument and symbol of a freeman’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.

America’s current political theater seems to make Ambrose Bierce a prophet. And his description of the results seems particularly apt: “We submit to the majority because we have to. But we are not compelled to call our attitude of subjection a posture of respect.”

  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).