H.L. Mencken in 10 Great Quotes

The ‘Great Authors in 10 Quotes’ is an ongoing series meant to expose readers to some of the most noteworthy thinkers in the classical liberal, libertarian, and anarchist traditions.  The challenge is finding material deep enough to reflect an author’s thought, while still being accessible for a brand new reader.  We encourage readers to leave comments linking to other written works and videos by the author.

Henry Louis “H. L.” Mencken (1880-1956) was a 20th century American journalist, author, satirist, and social critic.  Mencken was one of the most prominent American libertarians of the early 20th century. The son of German immigrants and early apprentice to his father’s cigar company, Mencken set out to become a professional journalist despite lacking connections or higher education. Ever the iconoclast, Mencken is known for both publishing the first English language book about the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as serving as the primary correspondent to the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial”.  Mencken represents the ‘Tory Anarchist’ strain of American libertarianism; a worldview that combined Anglo-American classical liberalism, aristocratic social sensibilities, and a brutal commitment to honest assessment of their contemporary culture. 

1.      Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard. (A Little Book in C Major, 1916).   

2.      Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby. (Notes on Journalism, 1926).  

Mencken constantly presented democracy as being antithetical to freedom.  Mencken was one of the few mainstream media critics to point out that the rise of mass democracy coincided with the rise of the welfare/warfare state.   

3.      All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man: its one permanent object is to oppress him and cripple him. If it be aristocratic in organization, then it seeks to protect the man who is superior only in law against the man who is superior in fact; if it be democratic, then it seeks to protect the man who is inferior in every way against both. One of its primary functions is to regiment men by force, to make them as much alike as possible and as dependent upon one another as possible, to search out and combat originality among them. All it can see in an original idea is potential change, and hence an invasion of its prerogatives. The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally he is very apt to spread discontent among those who are.(Smart Set, 1919).  

Mencken argued that one of the most destructive results of egalitarian democracy was the stifling of talent.  Mencken’s thought is reminiscent of both Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand.   

4.      I believe that liberty is the only genuinely valuable thing that men have invented, at least in the field of government, in a thousand years. I believe that it is better to be free than to be not free, even when the former is dangerous and the latter safe. I believe that the finest qualities of man can flourish only in free air – that progress made under the shadow of the policeman’s club is false progress, and of no permanent value. I believe that any man who takes the liberty of another into his keeping is bound to become a tyrant, and that any man who yields up his liberty, in however slight the measure, is bound to become a slave.(Why Liberty, 1927). 

Contemporary libertarians often present liberty as an overturning of tradition and social order.  Mencken offers an opposing view, that liberty is a prerequisite for human flourishing.  Too often, critics of libertarianism, both Left and Right, present liberty as being antithetical to civilization.  Mencken offers a differing view; that liberty is both the single greatest innovation of Western Civilization as well as a prerequisite for the growth of civilization.   

5.      When A annoys or injures B on the pretense of saving or improving X, A is a scoundrel. (Newspaper Days: 1899-1906).  

The ends do not justify the means and no amount of good intentions or rhetoric about the ‘greater good’ justifies that injustice or immorality.   

6.      I believe in only one thing and that thing is human liberty. If ever a man is to achieve anything like dignity, it can happen only if superior men are given absolute freedom to think what they want to think and say what they want to say. I am against any man and any organization which seeks to limit or deny that freedom. . . [and] the superior man can be sure of freedom only if it is given to all men.(Quoted from Mencken’s Personal Letters).

 7.      The government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office. Their principal device to that end is to search out groups who pant and pine for something they can’t get and to promise to give it to them. Nine times out of ten that promise is worth nothing. The tenth time is made good by looting A to satisfy B. In other words, government is a broker in pillage, and every election is sort of an advance auction sale of stolen goods. (Prejudices, First Series, 1919). 

8.      Nature abhors a moron. (A Mencken Chrestomathy, 1949).   

9.      Here is tragedy—and here is America. For the curse of the country, as well of all democracies, is precisely the fact that it treats its best men as enemies. The aim of our society, if it may be said to have an aim, is to iron them out. The ideal American, in the public sense, is a respectable vacuum.(More Tips for Novelists, 1926).   

10.  The fact is that the average man’s love of liberty is nine-tenths imaginary, exactly like his love of sense, justice and truth. He is not actually happy when free; he is uncomfortable, a bit alarmed, and intolerably lonely. Liberty is not a thing for the great masses of men. It is the exclusive possession of a small and disreputable minority, like knowledge, courage and honor. It takes a special sort of man to understand and enjoy liberty — and he is usually an outlaw in democratic societies.

  • Ted Seay

    Love his shorter quotes, too:

    Injustice is relatively easy to bear; it is justice that hurts.

    It is hard to believe that a man is telling the truth when you know that you would
    lie if you were in his place.

    For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong.

    Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone somewhere may be happy.

    The State: The common enemy of all honest, industrious, and decent men.

    Reform: Mainly a conspiracy of prehensile charlatans to mulct the taxpayer.

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