Nock and Mencken on Democracy and Equality
[Adapted from "The Libertarian Legacy of the Old Right: Democracy and Representative Government," Journal of Libertarian Studies 23 (2019): 5–21.]
Albert Jay Nock (1870–1945) and Henry L. Mencken (1880–1956) were the two leading libertarian intellectuals of the Old Right, during the thirties of the twentieth century. Both defended laissez-faire but opposed the New Deal, any connections between big government and big business, the First World War and the American policy of imperialism. They were also very polemical against various movements for cultural and moral elevation of the people, such as Prohibition and the battle for public education.
With Myth of a Guilty Nation, published in 1922, Nock influenced an entire generation of classical liberals, opposing Wilsonian internationalism and arguing for anti-militarism. From 1920 to 1924 he was editor of the weekly journal The Freeman. His writings are mostly elitist, based as they are on the fundamental role of the individual capable of elevating himself over the mass of the people. His thought is anchored in a strong individualism, explicitly critical of any forms of statism. Nock has a disenchanted approach to democracy, mainly based on the idea that the lowering of the level of culture and education is related to the democratic ideology. Enlarging the suffrage would not do any better and its only result would be the destruction of the highest ranks of culture. The policy, decided on by the government, of universal education is based on the theory that everyone is equally educable and that education has to be extended to the largest possible group. But, for Nock, this does not make sense, since we are not all equals in attitudes and capacities. The only true kind of equality is the equality of liberty and before the law. But the education system is based on a perversion of the idea of equality and on democracy. First of all, Nock clarifies, the Founding Fathers chose the republican system as the best way to secure the free expression of the individual in politics. A republic where everybody votes is considered ipso facto a democracy, but considering republican and democratic as synonymous is simply a confusion of terms. Actually, strictly speaking, democracy is simply a matter of counting the ballots, but it became an ideology. “Republicanism”—Nock writes—“does not…of itself even imply democracy….Democracy is not a matter of an extension of the suffrage….It is a matter of the diffusion of ownership; a true doctrine of democracy is a doctrine of public property.” And this because we are “aware that it is not, never was and never will be, those who vote that rule, but those who own.” So democracy, being an economic status, is animated by a strong resentment toward the élite, the socially, economically and intellectually superior persons. The democratic ideology rejects the simple reality that some achievements and experiences are open only to some people and not to all. Democracy postulates that everybody has to enjoy the same things.
The whole institutional life organized under the popular idea of democracy, then, must reflect this resentment. It must aim at no ideals above those of the average man, that is to say, it must regulate itself by the lowest common denominator of intelligence, taste and character in the society which it represents.
In a democratic system, therefore, education would be “common property” and so what is not manageable by everybody must be disregarded. This leads to a low and poor level of education and to the destruction of the higher ranks of culture, art, taste and life itself. Moreover, Nock’s theory of the state, as an enemy institution, founded on exploitation and robbery, sheds further light on his ideas about democracy. The doctrine of popular sovereignty was a structural alteration to the state, necessary to make people believe that the state was literally the expression of the popular will. Democratic representation has been an expedient in order to submit the subjects to a state they believed was legitimate. The most important expedient
was that of bringing in the so called representative or parliamentary system, which Puritanism introduced into the modern world, and which has received a great deal of praise as an advance towards democracy. This praise, however, is exaggerated. The change was one of form only, and its bearing on democracy has been inconsiderable.
Henry Louis Mencken was a leading protagonist of the American Old Right. In the weekly journal American Mercury, he and his colleagues bitterly criticized moral crusaders and the entire Wilsonian politics that considered the United States as the guardian of the world. Although he was a literary figure and did not elaborate a systematic system of political thought, he can rightly be considered a libertarian. Both Murray N. Rothbard and [Justin] Raimondo are convinced that there are many good reasons to place Mencken in the libertarian tradition. Rothbard defined him as “the joyous libertarian” for his witty and satirical prose. Mencken was, in Rothbard’s words, “a serene and confident individualist, dedicated to competence and excellence and deeply devoted to liberty, but convinced that the bulk of his fellows were beyond repair.” Mencken had a great influence on the Old Right during the twenties, rejecting the idea of a world war for peace and democracy, and defending laissez-faire in economics and in private life. His liberating force and his writings were not for the masses, but for the intelligent few who could understand and appreciate his message. Mencken believed that
government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man; its one permanent object is to oppress him and cripple him….One of its primary functions is to regiment men by force, to make them as much alike as possible, to search out and combat originality among them. The most dangerous man, to any government, is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regards to the prevailing superstitions and taboos.
The government “is a separate, independent and often hostile power.” Mencken perceived “the deep sense of antagonism between the government and the people it governs. It is…a separate and autonomous corporation mainly devoted to exploiting the population for the benefits of their own members…, oppressing the taxpayers to their own gain.” The best kind of government, he writes, “is one which lets the individual alone, one which barely escapes being no government at all.”
Mencken’s individualist perspective gives great consistency to his views on many topics, among the most important of which is democracy. Notes on Democracy, published in 1926, contains one of the most scathing critiques of the idea that the great masses of the people have an inalienable right to govern themselves and that they are competent to do it. A government is considered a good one if it can satisfy quickly the desires and ideas of the masses, that is to say of the inferior men. A good and democratic government is based on the idea of the omnipotence and omniscience of the masses. But, Mencken states, “that there is actually no more evidence for the wisdom of the inferior man, nor for his virtue, than there is for the notion that Friday is an unlucky day.” Mencken begins his analysis of democracy examining the psychology of the democratic man and clarifying that “in an aristocratic society government is a function of those who have got relatively far up the poles….In a democratic society it is the function of all, and hence mainly of those who have got only a few spans from the ground.” The democratic man contemplates with bitterness and admiration those who are above him. Bitterness and admiration form a complex of prejudices that, in a democracy, is called public opinion, which, under democracy, is regarded as something sacred. But, asks Mencken:
What does the mob think? It thinks, obviously, what its individual members think. And what is that? It is, in brief, what somewhat sharp-nosed and unpleasant children think. The mob, being composed, in the overwhelming main, of men and women who have not got beyond the ideas and emotions of childhood, hovers, in mental age, around the time of puberty, and chiefly below it. If we would get at its thoughts and feelings we must look for light to the thoughts and feelings of adolescents.
The main sentiment of humanity is fear and the main sentiment of the democratic man is envy. The “democratic man hates the fellow who is having a better time in this world” (Mencken 1926, 45), this is why, according to Mencken, envy is the origin of democracy. Politicians are well aware of the psychology of the masses, and those who know how to use the fears of the mob are the most successful. “Politics under democracy consists almost wholly of the discovery, chase and scotching of bugaboos. The statesman becomes, in the last analysis, a mere witch-hunter”; in fact “the plain people, under democracy, never vote for anything, but always against something.” Actually politics are not determined by the will of the people, but by small groups with special interests able to use the fears and to excite the envy of the masses. “Public policies are determined and laws are made by small minorities playing upon the fears and imbecilities of the mob.” Those who succeed in the realm of politics are not the best and most intelligent men, but are the ablest and cunning demagogues. Anticipating Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Mencken states that except for a miracle it would be very difficult for a man of value to be elected to office in a democratic state. The problem is that people believe that “the cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy” or something closer to direct democracy. The great masses of men, though free in theory, submit to oppression and exploitation. In fact, according to Mencken, the popular will remains purely theoretical in every form of democracy. Moreover, there is no reason for believing that its realization would change the main outlines of the democratic process, considering the low level of intelligence and knowledge of the mob.
Mencken examines the relationship between democracy and liberty and notes that the democratic man does not fight to gain more liberty but for more security and protection. “The fact,” he writes, is that liberty, in any true sense, is a concept that lies quite beyond the reach of the inferior man’s mind….Liberty means self-reliance, it means resolution, it means enterprise, it means the capacity for doing without.” But these are not the characteristics of the democratic masses. Actually, the masses’ longing for material goods can only be satisfied at the expense of liberty and property rights. It cannot be denied that freedom is an indispensable condition for the development of the personality of the individual, but if we look at the propensities of the masses we discover that frequently they prefer to sacrifice freedom in order to enjoy material or psychological advantages. The average man wants to feel protected even from himself. Writes Mencken:
The truth is that the common’s man love of liberty…is almost wholly imaginary….He is not actually happy when free; he is uncomfortable, a bit alarmed….He longs for the warm, reassuring smell of the herd, and is willing to take the herdsman with it. Liberty is not a thing for such as he….The average man doesn’t want to be free. He simply wants to be safe….What the common man longs for…is the simplest and most ignominious sort of peace—the peace of a trusty in a well-managed penitentiary. He is willing to sacrifice everything else to it. He puts it above his dignity and he puts it above his pride. Above all, he puts it above his liberty.
The average man tends to consider liberty as a weapon used against him in the hands of superior men but, recalling Edmund Burke, Mencken writes that
the heritage of freedom belongs to a small minority of men….It is my contention that such a heritage is necessary in order that the concept of liberty…may be so much as grasped—that such ideas cannot be implanted in the mind of man at will, but must be bred in as all other ideas are bred in….It takes quite as long to breed a libertarian as it takes to breed a racehorse.
If one of the main purposes of civilized governments is to preserve and augment liberty of the individual, then surely democracy accomplishes it less efficiently than any other form of government, since “the aim of democracy is to break all free spirits.” Mencken describes the tyrannical consequences of the cultural levelling tendencies of democracy. Like Alexis de Tocqueville he realizes that the pressure of a mass society of men all alike and equal leads to ostracism of those superior individuals “merely thinking unpopular thoughts.” “Once” a man “is accused of such heresy, the subsequent proceedings take on the character of a lynching.” The democratic, egalitarian society is pledged to common cultural values resulting in a rigorous homogeneity of way of thinking and of life. So “a man who stands in contempt of the prevailing ideology has no rights under the law.” By the mid-thirties the influence of Nock and Mencken had begun to decline. The Old Right, after playing an important role opposing the New Deal and in the crucible of the First World War, almost disappeared. During the years of World War II, government banned any opposition to war, Roosevelt and the New Deal. “The Old Right went underground for the duration” of the war and when America emerged from the war a new generation of old style libertarians appeared. They believed in laissez-faire and nonintervention in foreign policy.