It’s been a week of sober reflection, accompanied by a self-imposed news fast, during which I’ve struggled to understand the deeper meaning of our recent electoral catastrophe. Doing so undistracted by a thousand voices required strict electronic disengagement. I recommend this as one would take a purgative after eating a batch of bad oysters.
Many of us of the libertarian persuasion who had never previously voted Republican made an exception this time because the stakes were so high. In a purposeful departure from our usual “pox on both their houses” approach, we waded into the partisan fray naively believing we could make a difference, ignoring the stink on those with whom we made common cause simply because the alternative was so much worse.
All for naught. After approaching it for decades, America has now hurtled past the dependency tipping point. We have scrapped the last vestiges of our constitutionally limited republic of strictly enumerated powers and replaced it with an unconstrained entitlement democracy neither better nor worse than any of the others whose failures have dotted the course of history—all over weighty issues such as who should pay for condoms.
Heeding the cry, Forward!, an electoral majority happily voted for itself unlimited benefits that will supposedly be paid for by a productive minority—even as the nation careens toward bankruptcy and said productive minority starts eyeing the exits. With demographic changes reinforcing a permanent ethnic tribalism that abjures the melting pot, the likelihood that our country will ever recover its founding values has vanished as thoroughly as our respect for the dead white men who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to make our way of life possible.
So be it. Mourn, if you choose. But when you’re done you still have to pay the rent.
What should that new strategy be?
I searched for the answer as I reassessed my own mission as an opinion columnist. Today, that is a calling, not a true profession. The going rate for opinion pieces has dropped from $1.50 per word—eagerly paid by hungry editors back when magazines had business models that actually worked—to zero in today’s content-glutted, balkanized blogosphere. Let’s face it, as traditional publishing slowly perishes and is replaced by an electronically enabled mediocrity made possible by the removal of all barriers to entry, those of us who write do so solely to entertain what micro-audiences we can gather—a sorry business to be sure, yet one with deep cultural roots.
Examining those roots led me to the brink of enlightenment. Crossing its threshold required abandoning all pretenses that the legacy of Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Franklin, and Washington has any relevance to our modern world—acknowledging the judgment of our fellow citizens that the Constitution as written is no longer a guiding document, but an outmoded relic of an age gone by. In its stead we have the virtues of unlimited empathy, fairness, solidarity, and the surrender of ever bigger slices of our take-home pay. Acknowledging these painful truths and in a token of my conversion, I have burned my voter registration card so as to never be patsy or party to another damn fool election.
I have thus liberated myself from all responsibility to stand athwart history, yelling Stop. What a blessed relief! With the bulk of my productive years behind me (not that it matters since I’m told I didn’t build that anyway), I pledge what is left of my life, my misfortune, and my abandoned honor to become a chronicler of the decline and fall of entitlement democracy.
The credo of American man of letters H. L. Mencken is based on the tenet that politics as practiced by boobus Americanus should be viewed as an act of nature, to be dealt with as one would a stormy day. Only a fool tries to reason with the wind hoping to persuade it to blow in another direction. Mocking those who insist on going into the rain without an umbrella or who claim that night is day, cold is hot, snow makes for a good time at the beach, money printing generates wealth, and nations can tax and spend their way to prosperity may not solve any problems. But it sure can dish up some compensating amusement while we wait for the roof to fall in.
The joy of Menckenism is that it frees practitioners to lampoon the folly of everything without ever having to defend anything. Not even their own behavior, criticism of which can be dispatched with a simple phrase understandable even by those equipped with no more than the basic vocabulary provided by a public education: If you don’t like it, lump it.
H. L. Mencken did not write to inform, educate, and improve his fellow man, a project he would have deemed insane. His complex prose was not designed to penetrate the intellectual fog in which most people spend their lives. He did not chuckle good naturedly at man’s foibles, as did Will Rogers, the likable everyman. Mencken embraced his elitism and used his perch to laugh heartily and acidly at the knaves who called themselves public servants and the fools who repeatedly voted them into office.
Perhaps the best example of Menckenism is the approach he took to Prohibition. When it became clear that voters, in their wisdom, were going to ban the manufacture, importation, and sale of alcohol, did he mount a political campaign to avert this self-inflicted calamity? Did he use the power of his pen to explain the futility of such a policy, pointing out the unintended consequences that would surely ensue? Did he exhaust himself swimming against the tide of public opinion?
No. He rented a fortified warehouse and stocked it with a decades’ worth of beer, wine, whiskey, and champagne. This allowed him to entertain his friends in style while chortling his way through the rise of bootlegging, rum running, organized crime, and the accumulation of the Kennedy fortune that plagues us to this day.
Mencken understood the American people better than they understood themselves, and he eloquently shared his understanding with unsparing wit. “If x is the population of the United States and y is the degree of imbecility of the average American, then democracy is the theory that x times y is less than y.” Amen.
Where does the path lead once one truly gives up on democracy? I don’t know. Join me in a cocktail and let’s find out.
Bill Frezza is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a Boston-based venture capitalist. You can find all of his columns, TV, and radio interviews here. If you would like to have his columns delivered to you by email, click here or follow him on Twitter @BillFrezza.