Why Shed Blood for Democracy?

Exclusive to STR

September 2, 2008

Winston Churchill once said that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. A conversation with just about any voter would work as well. Hans-Hermann Hoppe points out that democracy promotes 'the 'infantilization' of society,' resulting in 'continually increased taxes, paper money and paper money inflation, an unending flood of legislation, and a steadily growing 'public' debt.' Under democracy, he says, we've witnessed the limited war of kings give way to total war, in which the 'distinction between combatants and non-combatants becomes fuzzy and ultimately disappears . . . .' Furthermore, democracy has served as 'the fountainhead of every form of socialism: of (European) democratic socialism and (American) liberalism and neo-conservatism as well as of international (Soviet) socialism, (Italian) fascism, and national (Nazi) socialism.' And given that the modern welfare state is economically unstable, it 'is bound to collapse under its own parasitic weight, much like Russian-style socialism imploded' in 1991.

It is frequently argued that if only we could return to constitutional government, many of the abuses we find in democracy would vanish. But even a minimalist constitution is vulnerable to a coup. John C. Calhoun's Disquisition on Government, written in the late 1840s when the government's assault on liberty was still in its infancy, identified the inescapable nature of a democratic society. As Thomas DiLorenzo noted in a recent article, Calhoun saw the folly in believing that an organization in control of the ballot box and the military could be overcome 'by an appeal to reason, truth, justice, or the obligations imposed by the constitution." Calhoun maintained that democracy consists of a war between net taxpayers and net tax consumers, and that the war's end would be the 'subversion of the constitution' in which all restrictions on state power would be annulled.

And today's Republicrats know the end is near, if it hasn't already arrived. Both McCain and Obama talk like they've never heard of the Constitution. If they occasionally speak with deference to a higher authority, it's to keep the voters inert.

In an attempt to reverse the statist onslaught, libertarians try to educate the public. But the libertarian message depends on the public taking the initiative. They have to look for it and find it ' it isn't poured on them from mainstream outlets. And the Establishment will have it no other way.

While the odds against getting a message out may seem insurmountable, there's always the possibility of hacking the Establishment. It's more a fantasy than a possibility, but let's indulge. In this case, the hack would consist of taking control of that portion of viewers' TV screens normally reserved for stock quotes and sports scores. All TVs, everywhere.

Imagine politically incorrect messages rolling along the bottom of America 's TVs while talking heads ramble tediously about the latest statist proposals. 'Braves 6, Phillies 3' gives way to 'Why should democracy rise against bribery? It is itself a form of wholesale bribery.'

As the above quote suggests, the hacker could achieve brilliance by drawing on the writings of H. L. Mencken.

Dissident Books will soon release a new edition of Mencken's 1926 classic, Notes on Democracy. It is nicely packaged, with an introduction by Mencken biographer Marion Elizabeth Rodgers and an afterword by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Lewis. Very importantly, it also includes an Annotations section to clarify some of Mencken's allusions, making the text more accessible to young readers.

But for the most part, a rapier wit such as Mencken's needs no translating, as the bribery quote shows. Though Mencken was one of the most prolific journalists of his day, Notes on Democracy alone could provide antidotal wisdom for an entire election season.

Democratic Man

Mencken tells us that democratic man 'originated in the poetic fancy of gentlemen on the upper levels ' sentimentalists who, observing to their distress that the ass was over-laden, proposed to reform transport by putting him into the cart.' It took awhile for this democratic man to adjust to the idea that he was special by virtue of his inferiority, but gradually

his wishes . . . began to take on the dignity of legal rights, and after a while, of intrinsic and natural rights, and by the same token the wishes of his masters sank to the level of mere ignominious lusts. By 1828 in America and by 1848 in Europe the doctrine had arisen that all moral excellence, and with it all pure and unfettered sagacity, resided in the inferior four-fifths of mankind.

To Mencken, what is most curious about democratic man is, though he reaches his capacity for absorbing knowledge quickly, he

remains capable for a long time thereafter of absorbing delusions. What is true daunts him, but what is not true finds lodgment in his cranium with so little resistance that there is only a trifling emission of heat.

The process of education is largely a process of dispelling childhood fears and illusions with knowledge. Under democracy, though, education is sentenced to futility because the

vast majority of men are congenitally incapable of any such intellectual progress. . . They are unable to reason from a set of facts before them, free from emotional distraction. But they also lack something more fundamental: they are incompetent to take in the bald facts themselves.

Given the nature of democratic man, what does democracy become in practice? A witch hunt.

The whole history of the country has been a history of melodramatic pursuits of horrendous monsters, most of them imaginary . . .

He cites the example of World War I. Before the U.S. joined the blood-fest, the mob's only concern was to stay out of danger, reflected in the most popular song of 1915, 'I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.' In 1916, Wilson was re-elected on his fraudulent promise to keep that boy from danger. On the morning after Election Day, the demagogues shifted gears. They had to generate a new fear even greater than the fear of going to war, and they succeeded by demonizing Germans and a possible German victory.

The whole power of the government was concentrated upon throwing the plain people into a panic. All sense was heaved overboard, and there ensued a chase of bugaboos on a truly epic scale.

By the end of 1917, the American people were in a state of terror about a foe 3,000 miles away and without the means to harm them.

Liberty and Democratic Man

Democratic man is an enemy of liberty because his greatest concern is not freedom but safety. He is a natural slave. Genuine liberty requires courage, a quality he lacks. Even the concept of liberty is beyond the reach of his limited understanding.

He can imagine and even esteem, in his way, certain false forms of liberty ' for example, the right to choose between two political mountebanks, and to yell for the more obviously dishonest -- but the reality is incomprehensible to him.

Further on, Mencken says,

The great masses of men, though theoretically free, are seen to submit supinely to oppression and exploitation of a hundred abhorrent sorts. Have they no means of resistance? Obviously they have. The worst tyrant, even under democratic plutocracy, has but one throat to slit.

In prosperous times,

the typical democrat is quite willing to exchange any of the theoretical boons of freedom for something that he can use . . . . He will sell it very willingly for a good job or for some advantage in his business. Offering him such bribes, in fact, is the chief occupation of all political parties under democracy, and of all professional politicians.

And don't talk to democratic man about taking up arms against the state. He can get anything he wants through conventional means. If he's concerned about the Constitution, it can always be amended, if necessary. And by 'anything,' Mencken meant anything, even legalizing the president's assassination for malfeasance. Democratic man could

abandon the writ of habeas corpus, authorize unreasonable searches and seizures, legalize murder by public officers . . .

The Politician Under Democracy

The politician is democracy's courtier. 'His business is never what it pretends to be,' Mencken says. Though he comes across as a whole-hearted devotee to the service of his fellow man, he is actually 'a sturdy rogue whose principal, and often sole aim in life is to butter his own parsnips. His technical equipment consists simply of an armamentarium of deceits.'

Where do his powers lie?

They lie, obviously, in the gross weaknesses and knaveries of the common people ' in their inability to grasp any issues save the simplest and most banal, in their incurable tendency to fly into preposterous alarms, in their petty self-seeking and venality, in their instinctive envy and hatred of their superiors . . .

He goes on:

The inferior man cannot imagine himself save as taking orders ' if not from the boss, then from the priest, and if not from the priest, then from some fantastic drill-sergeant of his own creation.

Demagoguery is the hallmark of democracy. And the demagogue

is one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots . . . . The whole process [of seeking office] is one of false pretences and ignoble concealments.

Dishonorable men tend to gradually 'monopolize all the public offices. Out of the muck of their swinishness the typical American law-maker emerges.'

He has taken orders from his superiors in knavery and he has wooed and flattered his inferiors in sense . . . . He is willing to embrace any issue, however idiotic, that will get him votes, and he is willing to sacrifice any principle, however sound, that will lose them for him.

Democracy and Liberty

The average man, Mencken tells us, doesn't like liberty. It alarms him and leaves him feeling lonely. He longs instead for 'the warm, reassuring smell of the herd, and is willing to take the herdsman with it.' He doesn't want to be free. He wants to be safe.

The greatest threat to democracy is not a tyrant but a free spirit. Democracies 'are in vast dread of heresy, as a Sunday-school superintendent is in dread of scarlet women . . . .' The aim of all democracies is to crush the free spirits, 'to make docile John Does of them.'

The inferior man, he says, resents and envies the superior man. Such an attitude, of course, is not unique to democracy.

But it is only under democracy that it is liberated; it is only under democracy that it becomes the philosophy of the state.

The democratic state shows a strong tendency to become a Puritan state. Puritans want to bring the other fellow down to their level. So it is with democratic man. Both make the same error: they mistake a weakness for a merit. Both are docile, cowardly, and lacking in enterprise and originality.

As for democracy's future, Mencken cannot say. His purpose in Notes is not prognosis but diagnosis. He is engaged in pathology, not therapeutics. Yet he admits

To lack a remedy is to lack the very license to discuss disease. The causes of this are to be sought, without question, in the nature of democracy itself. It came into the world as a cure-all, and it remains primarily a cure-all to this day. Any boil upon the body politic, however vast and raging, may be relieved by taking a vote . . . .

Regarding democracy's blind optimism, he says

The man who hopes absurdly, it appears, is in some fantastic and gaseous manner a better citizen than the man who detects and exposes the truth. Bear this sweet democratic axiom clearly in mind. It is, fundamentally, what is the matter with the United States .

Notes on Democracy is strong medicine for the politically na've, though it may require more than one reading to keep the malady in remission. It is the perfect tonic for surviving our politicized culture.

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Columns on STR: 71

George F. Smith is the author of The Flight of The Barbarous Relic, a novel about a renegade Fed chairman.  Visit his website.