History Rhymes

Henry Louis (H.L.) Mencken was an irreverent and insightful American newspaper columnist and social commentator in the first half of the 20th century. He died at 75 in 1956.

H.L. Mencken Theatre Magazine, 1928

Other than the more formal language and the tendency to avoid 7-word sound bites, any of these thoughts could have been written in response to what we see today.

On political methods

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

Have you seen recent reporting on anything but Covid-19, masks, shutdowns, vaccine, climate change, racial inequity, open borders, and white supremacism. All fear inspiring. Remains to be seen if they are all imaginary.

On the media

“…I have given my whole life to newspapers. I am convinced that they have abandoned their functions, and in an abject and ignominious manner, in the present war. Nine-tenths of them, and even more than nine-tenths, print the official blather without any attempt to scrutinize it… It is a disgraceful spectacle, but I do not believe that anything can be done about it. Roosevelt has taken the press into camp as certainly has he has taken the Supreme Court. It has ceased altogether to be independent and has become docilely official.”

“A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier.”

This is exactly what we see today. Now the newspapers have been superseded by broadcast media, and social media. Social media is especially adept at making the crazy crazier.

On politicians

“The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it. Power is what all messiahs really seek: not the chance to serve.”

“[Roosevelt] was always… finding new victims to loot and new followers to reward, flouting common sense, and boldly denying its existence, demonstrating by his anti-logic that two and two made five, promising larger and larger slices of the moon. His career will greatly engage historians, if any good ones ever appear in America, but it will be of even more interest to psychologists. He was the first American to penetrate to the real depths of vulgar stupidity. He never made the mistake of overestimating the intelligence of the American mob. He was its unparalleled professor.”

“The main thing that every political campaign in the United States demonstrates is that the politicians of all parties, despite their superficial enmities, are really members of one great brotherhood. Their principal, and indeed their sole, object is to collar public office, with all the privileges and profits that go therewith. They achieve this collaring by buying votes with other people’s money. No professional politician is ever actually in favor of public economy. It is his implacable enemy, and he knows it. All professional politicians are dedicated wholeheartedly to waste and corruption. They are the enemies of every decent man.”

The important element is they think we are dumb enough to accept all this. Given that dumb is normally distributed, they probably have enough that fit the category to get elected. As education becomes indoctrination the proportion will grow. Is there any way to oppose that motion?

On Governments

“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.”

Since Mencken’s day, it is not just the politicians. Much of it now is embedded in the public service. The unbridled ability to regulate creates an entire new class of overseer.

On using power

“A policeman is a charlatan who offers, in return for obedience, to protect him (a) from his superiors, (b) from his equals, and (c) from himself. This last service, under democracy, is commonly the most esteemed of them all. In the United States, at least theoretically, it is the only thing that keeps ice-wagon drivers, Y.M.C.A. secretaries, insurance collectors and other such human camels from smoking opium, ruining themselves in the night clubs, and going to Palm Beach with Follies girls . . . Under the pressure of fanaticism, and with the mob complacently applauding the show, democratic law tends more and more to be grounded upon the maxim that every citizen is, by nature, a traitor, a libertine, and a scoundrel. In order to dissuade him from his evil-doing the police power is extended until it surpasses anything ever heard of in the oriental monarchies of antiquity.”

Does society control how people turn out, or do people come with certain, often selfish, behavioural biases? The technique for improvement will be very different depending on which view dominates. If it is the constrained view, people have natural flaws, then policing can be less important and incentives and disincentives will be enough to do the job.

What it means

We have been here before and survived, even prospered.

Are we as morally strong, and as personally strong, as our grandparents? Will we survive the current intrusion into our liberty?

If the unconstrained view prevails, society shapes people from a blank sheet, police power will be necessary to impose the top-down structure.

Do we need to go back a hundred years for examples? Apparently not. Seven years is enough. Threatened ‘Global Catastrophes’ Keeping You Up At Night? Rest Easy.

Stay tuned.


I help people have more income and larger, more liquid estates.

Call or email don@moneyfyi.com in Canada 705-927-4770

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