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Category: Brian Jacobson

H.L. Mencken on Envy and Democracy


No doubt my distaste for democracy as a political theory is, like every other human prejudice, due to an inner lack-to a defect that is a good deal less in the theory than in myself. In this case it is very probably my incapacity for envy.

That emotion, or weakness, or whatever you choose to call it, is quite absent from my make-up; where it ought to be there is a vacuum. In the face of another man’s good fortune I am as inert as a curb broker before Johann Sebastian Bach. It gives me neither pleasure or distress. The fact, for example, that John D. Rockefeller had more money than I have is as uninteresting to me as the fact that he believed in total immersion and wore detachable cuffs. And the fact that some half-anonymous ass or other has been elected President of the United States, or appointed a professor at Harvard, or married to a rich wife, or even to a beautiful and amiable one: this fact is as meaningless to me as the latest piece of bogus news from eastern Europe.

The reason for this does not lie in any native nobility or acquired virtue. Far from it, indeed. It lies in the accidental circumstance that the business I pursue in the world seldom brings me into very active competition with other men. I have, of course, rivals but they do not rival me directly and exactly, as one delicatessen dealer or or clergyman or lawyer or politician rivals another.

It is only rarely that their success costs me anything, and even then the fact is usually concealed. I have always had enough money to meet my modest needs and have always found it easy to get more than I actually want. A skeptic as to all ideas, including especially my own, I have never suffered a pang when the ideas of some other imbecile prevailed. […]

And there is only one sound argument for democracy, and that is the argument that it is a crime for any man to hold himself out as better than other men, and, above all, a most heinous offense for him to prove it.

What I admire most in any man is a serene spirit, a steady freedom from moral indignation, an all-embracing tolerance-in short, what is commonly called good sportsmanship. Such a man is not to be mistaken for one who shirks the hard knocks of life. On the contrary, he is frequently an eager gladiator, vastly enjoying opposition. But when he fights, he fights in the manner of a gentleman fighting a duel, not in that of a longshoreman cleaning out a waterfront saloon. That is to say, he carefully guards his amour propre by assuming that his opponent is as decent a man he is, and just as honest-and perhaps, after all, right. Such an attitude is palpably impossible to a democrat. His distinguishing mark is the fact that he always attacks his opponents, not only with all arms, but also with snorts and objurgations-that he is always filled with moral indignation-that he is incapable of imaging honor in an antagonist, and hence incapable of honor himself.

Such fellows I do not like. I do not share their emotion. I cannot understand their indignation, their choler. In particular, I can’t fathom their envy.

And so I am against them.

Taken from A Blind Spot from the Smart Set, 1920, pp.43-44

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Mises on American Prosperity

(from p.37-39 of Ludwig von Mises, Profit and Loss)

“The tycoons are too powerful, too rich, and too big. They abuse their power for their own enrichment. They are irresponsible tyrants. Bigness of an enterprise is in itself an evil. There is no reason why some men should own millions while others are poor. The wealth of the few is the cause of the poverty of the masses.”

Each word of these passionate denunciations is false. The businessmen are not irresponsible tyrants. It is precisely the necessity of making profits and avoiding losses that gives to the consumers a firm hold over the entrepreneurs and forces them to comply with the wishes of the people. What makes a firm big is its success in best filling the demands of the buyers. If the bigger enterprise did not better serve the people than a smaller one, it would long since have been reduced to smallness. There is no harm in a businessman’s endeavors to enrich himself by increasing his profits. The businessman has in his capacity as a businessman only one task: to strive after the highest possible profit. Huge profits are the proof of good service rendered in supplying the consumers. Losses are the proof of blunders committed, of failure to perform satisfactorily the tasks incumbent upon an entrepreneur. The riches of successful entrepreneurs are not the cause of anybody’s poverty; it is the consequence of the fact that the consumers are better supplied than they would have been in the absence of the entrepreneur’s effort. The penury of millions in the backward countries is not caused by anybody’s opulence; it is the correlative of the fact that their country lacks entrepreneurs who have acquired riches. The standard of living of the common man is highest in those countries which have the greatest number of wealthy entrepreneurs. It is to the foremost material interest of everybody that control of the factors of production should be concentrated in the hands of those who know how to utilize them in the most efficient way.

It is the avowed objective of the policies of all present-day governments and political parties to prevent the emergence of new millionaires. If this policy had been adopted in the United States fifty years ago the growth of the industries producing new articles would have been stunted. Motorcars, refrigerators, radio sets, and a hundred other less spectacular but even more useful innovations would not have become standard equipment in most of the American family households.

The average wage earner thinks that nothing else is needed to keep the social apparatus of production running and to improve and to increase output than the comparatively simple routine work assigned to him. He does not realize that the mere toil and trouble of the routinist is not sufficient. Sedulousness and skill are spent in vain if they are not directed toward the most important goal by the entrepreneur’s foresight and are not aided by the capital accumulated by capitalists. The American worker is badly mistaken when he believes that his high standard of living is due to his own excellence. He is neither more industrious nor more skillful than the workers of Western Europe. He owes his superior income to the fact that his country clung to “rugged individualism” much longer than Europe. It was his luck that the United States turned to an anticapitalistic policy as much as forty or fifty years later than Germany. His wages are higher than those of the workers of the rest of the world because the capital equipment per head of the employee is highest in America and because the American entrepreneur was not so much restricted by crippling regimentation as his colleagues in other areas. The comparatively greater prosperity of the United States is an outcome of the fact that the New Deal did not come in 1900 or
1910, but only in 1933.

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