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In Praise of Irreverence

June 14, 2002

The name Mark Twain evokes fond memories in many Americans, primarily for stories most of us read as teenagers. But Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910) not only wrote far more than we commonly read today; he was at one time the most famous living American. And he gained and maintained much of his fame and following through his humorous reflections about government.

If those reflections could be said to have a motto, it would have been, in Twain's own words, "Irreverence is the champion of liberty and its one sure defense."

Since we are entering into the "serious" part of a congressional election year, consider some of the things Twain had to say about politics and legislatures. It will help defuse some of the contributions candidates’ hot air will be adding to global warming.

"...when you are in politics you are in a wasp’s nest with a short shirt-tail..."

"When politics enter . . . government, nothing resulting there from in the way of crimes and infamies is then incredible. It actually enables one to accept and believe the impossible."

"In . . . politics people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing."

"The government of my country snubs honest simplicity, but fondles artistic villainy, and I think I might have developed into a very capable pickpocket if I had remained in the public service a year or two."

"Right here in this heart and home and fountain-head of lawBin this great factory where are forged those rules that create good order and compel virtue and honesty in the other communities of the land, rascality achieves its highest perfection."

"What is the difference between a taxidermist and a tax collector? The taxidermist takes only your skin."

"History has tried to teach us that we can't have good government under politicians.  Now, to go and stick one at the very head of government couldn’t be wise."

"Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself."

"In my experience, only third-rate intelligence is sent to Legislatures to make laws, because the first-rate article will not leave important private interests go unwatched to go and serve the public."

"Few men of first class ability can afford to let their affairs go to ruin while they fool away their time in Legislatures. . . . But your chattering, one-horse village lawyer likes it, and your solemn ass from the cow countries, who don't know the Constitution from the Lord's Prayer, enjoys it, and these you always find in the Assembly."

"Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can."

"All Congresses and Parliaments have a kindly feeling for idiots, and a compassion for them, on account of personal experience and heredity."

". . . one of the first achievements of the legislature was to institute a ten-thousand-dollar agricultural fair to show off forty dollars’ worth of pumpkins in."

"If you are a member of Congress (no offense) and one of your constituents who doesn’t know anything, and does not want to go into the bother of learning something, and has no money, and no employment, and can't earn a living, comes besieging you for help . . . you throw him on his country. He is his country's child, let his country support him.  There is something good and motherly about Washington, the grand old benevolent Asylum for the Helpless."

"Our Congress . . . In their private life they are true to every obligation of honor; yet in every session they violate them all, and do it without shame. . . . In private life those men would bitterly resent--and justly--any insinuation that it would not be safe to leave unwatched money within their reach; yet you could not wound their feelings by reminding them that every time they vote ten dollars to the pension appropriation, nine of it is stolen money and they the marauders."

"It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress."

"I think I can say, and say with pride, that we have some legislatures that bring in higher prices than any in the world."

"Senator: Person who makes laws in Washington when not doing time."

"To my mind Judas Iscariot was nothing but a low, mean, premature Congressman."

"I believe the Prince of Darkness could start a branch hell in the District of Columbia (if he has not already done it), and carry it on unimpeached by the Congress of the United States, even though the Constitution were bristling with articles forbidding hells in this country. . . . What a rotten, rotten, and unspeakable nasty concern this nest of departments is, with its brainless battalions of Congressional poor-relation-clerks and their book-keeping, pencil-sharpening strumpets."

"No one's life, liberty, or property is safe while the legislature is in session."

Mark Twain's view of the reality of government seems to be summed up by his modification of Abraham Lincoln, that "Wherefore being all of one mind, we do highly resolve that government of the grafted by the grafter for the grafter shall not perish from the earth."

And he saw problems with that reality for a nation founded in liberty:

The mania for giving the Government power to meddle with the private affairs of cities or citizens is likely to cause endless trouble . . . and there is great danger that our people will lose our independence of thought and action . . . and sink into the helplessness of [one] who expects his government to feed him when hungry, clothe him when naked, to prescribe when his child may be born and when he may die, and, in fine, to regulate every act of humanity from the cradle to the tomb, including the manner in which he may seek future admission to paradise.

Mark Twain wrote long ago. But he seems at least as insightful about the government abuses we experience today as he was of those he observed directly. And the defense of liberty in modern America, with a government that has ballooned far beyond anything he could have anticipated, would certainly benefit from a healthy new dose of the same patriotic irreverence that animated Twain.


Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. Send him MAIL, and see his Mises.org Articles Archive. See also Twainquotes.com.


Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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