Book review: Mencken's Conservatism by Benjamin Marks

Posted by Luke on the

Filed under economics, politics, books

Mencken's Conservatism (2012), was written by Benjamin Marks, editor-in-chief for http://economics.org.au/. Like most Australian authors, Marks doesn't get enough attention, so please, support the author.

This primer on Mencken's philosophy was quite profound, and, sadly, very underappreciated. I feel that this is an important perspective to re-frame the debate around statism versus a free society. The author shows that Mencken is not really a cynic, but a realist. As Mencken said, "Reconciling ourselves to the incurable swinishness of government, and to the inevitable stupidity and roguery of its agents, we discover that both stupidity and roguery are bearable - nay, that there is in them a certain assurance against something worse."

Indeed, his writings didn't bring about a free society - in fact, he correctly predicted that government would continue to grow at an exponential rate after his death. Advocating for the abolition of the state (or even the greater utopian vision of a limited state) is like trying to steer a cruise ship with an oar. So, how did Mencken work for a lifetime and still carry on with relative happiness? He didn't write to persuade. The author notes, "Writing to persuade can leave you with many peculiar stances. But writing to express your libertarian beliefs is a much more straightforward enterprise, and your writing is then relevant forever and won't come back to haunt you".

This makes me think of the modern Conservative whose current platform generally resembles the progressive platform of yesterday. It's an eternal game of rugby where the progressives charge ahead, and the conservatives celebrate a successful tackle without noticing they've ceded ground. When the progressives say, "we want $3 trillion in equitable infrastructure spending", if your response is to say "Let's compromise. How about $1.5 trillion?", you have already lost the debate. You tacitly admit that some government spending is good. If some government spending is good, then you obviously can't have too much of a good thing, so why stop at $1.5tn?. You are attempting to persuade the progressive to your position that government spending is evil by agreeing to government spending. Instead, you should argue from the principle that all government spending is necessarily funded by theft at gunpoint and therefore any concession is unconscionable.

Conservatism in 2021

The book has shown me that I have been far too utopian in discussions about free societies. Rather than listing all the ways that a free society will be better for the individuals within it - given that this is entirely subjective, (and many people find a great deal of comfort in being subordinate to the coercive monopoly of the state) - it is far more productive to argue from first principles. You may not be liked, but you will be authentic, and that is far more important in the long term. No amount of concession from you will make a free society any more likely. You'll either be hated for adhering to your principles, or you'll be forgotten because you abandoned them.

"The fraud of democracy, I contend, is more amusing than any other... All its axioms resolve themselves into thundering paradoxes, many amounting to downright contradictions in terms. The mob is competent to rule the rest of us - but it must be rigorously policed itself. There is a government, not of men, but of laws - but men are set upon benches to decide finally what the law is and may be [...] I confess, for my part, that it greatly delights me. I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing."

H. L. Mencken