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Monday, June 6, 2011

On the Follies of Society

Leonard Read often used a candle as a metaphor for the idea of liberty. Even in darkness a simple candle can shine to show the way. And the more people who hold a candle for liberty, the brighter liberty will shine. But in the world we live, this is no easy task. The ever increasing size and scope of the state makes keeping our flames of liberty alive difficult, to say the least. After all, as Ludwig von Mises pointed out, “government is the negation of liberty.”

Many individuals in favor of liberty simply retire from the social and political world into their own occupations and let the light slowly extinguish. Luckily, there are always the brave few who fight to keep the idea of liberty alive and well. They hold their candles up and fight the battle of ideas in order to make the world a better place, or, at the very least, attempt to make the world a better place. Undoubtedly, the world should be indebted to these individuals for keeping the hope alive, for these individuals are necessary to achieve any sort of liberty.

There is, however, another direction a libertarian can take. In the words of Murray Rothbard, “he can stay in the world, enjoying himself immensely at this spectacle of folly.” In other words, he can lampoon the society, which is turning its back upon the path it should be on. This is a cynical approach, but probably more important than is often realized. Rather than attempting to extend your flame, you mock the system and those who remain in the dark, while having fun doing it.

This was the path taken by the journalist H.L. Mencken. Many write Mencken off as merely a conservative, but as Henry Hazlitt pointed out, this is far from the truth. Mencken was a very principled libertarian. Behind the words he used to lampoon society’s follies, he consistently championed liberty and the dignity of the individual. His attacks upon the welfare state, censorship, prohibition, etc. were more than the grumblings of a crotchety cynic; they were a consistent defense of liberty through pointing out the errors of others.

Mencken used to refer to politics as a carnival of buncombe, which means unacceptable behavior. As he once said, “a good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.” And he took great enjoyment in this, as, “A national political campaign is better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in.” The whole process is a result of what the people want. To Mencken democracy meant the right of the majority to suppress or persecute a nonconformist minority. As he said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” This was the system we asked for and the results were what we deserved.

The world could do with another Mencken. Of course its crucial to have those who expound the importance of liberty, but it is also important to have someone point out the absurdity of our current ways. After all, at best another Mencken will influence others to fight for liberty, and at worst we can at least enjoy the show. For Mencken may only have been a journalist, but as Hazlitt pointed out, he knew what he was talking about.

Download Mencken: A Retrospect by Henry Hazlitt here.

  • Nicholas Snow is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Kenyon College in the Department of Economics, and previously a Senior Lecturer at The Ohio State University Economics Department. His research focuses on the political economy of prohibition.