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Mencken on the Economists


Today is the 57th anniversary of  the death of H. L. Mencken, perhaps the greatest of American writers. Murray Rothbard called him the "joyous libertarian" (a term that describes Rothbard as well). Rothbard wrote that "American Kultur . . . was incapable of understanding H. L. Mencken. . . . It is difficult for Americans to understand a merger of high-spirited wit and devotion to principle; one is either a humorist, gently or acidly spoofing the foibles of one's age, or else one is a serious and solemn thinker. That a man of ebullient wit can be, in a sense, all the more devoted to positive ideas and principles is understood by very few; almost always, he is set down as a pure cynic and nihilist." Mencken was no nihilist, but a "serene and confident individualist, dedicated to competence and excellence and deeply devoted to liberty."

To honor Mencken, I direct you to one of his  typically funny essays, "The Dismal Science," about the economists of his day. A few excerpts:

One of [my poisons], following hard after theology, is political economy. What! Political economy, that dismal science? Well, why not? Its dismalness is largely a delusion, due to the fact that its chief ornaments, at least in our own day, are university professors. The professor must be an obscurantist or he is nothing; he has a special and unmatchable talent for dullness; his central aim is not to expose the truth clearly, but to exhibit his profundity, his esotericity—in brief, to stagger sophomores and other professors. The notion that German is a gnarled and unintelligible language arises out of the circumstance that it is so much written by professors. . . .
[There is no] inherent reason why even the most technical divisions of its subject should have gathered cobwebs with the passing of the years. Taxation, for example, is eternally lively; it concerns nine-tenths of us more directly than either smallpox or golf, and has just as much drama in it; moreover, it has been mellowed and made gay by as many gaudy, preposterous theories. As for foreign exchange, it is almost as romantic as young love, and quite as resistant to formulae. . . .
Political economy, in so far as it is a science at all, was not pumped up and embellished by any such academic clients and ticket-of-leave men. It was put on its legs by inquirers who were not only safe from all dousing in the campus pump, but who were also free from the mental timorousness and conformity which go inevitably with school-teaching—in brief, by men of the world, accustomed to its free air, its hospitality to originality and plain speaking.

Contact Peter G. Klein

Peter G. Klein is Carl Menger Research Fellow of the Mises Institute and W. W. Caruth Chair and Professor of Entrepreneurship at Baylor University's Hankamer School of Business.