Mencken on Presidential Elections

by Don Boudreaux on November 3, 2008

in Politics

Here’s the great H.L. Mencken writing in the Baltimore Sun on July 16, 1920:

[W]hen a candidate for public office faces the
voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief
distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of
weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most
elemental—men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and
whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So
confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost…
[A]ll the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious
and mediocre—the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his
mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to
such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and
more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty
ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will
reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned
by a downright moron.

By the way, please do not accuse me of being elitist.   I can’t speak for Mencken, but I’m quite sure that the same person who is an imbecile in the voting both is an incredibly insightful, talented, and careful welder, taxicab driver, computer-software engineer, Hollywood actor, housewife, furniture mover, professional athlete, novelist, retail clerk — you name it.  Politics makes irrationality rational.  When voters go back to their private lives after venting their largely uninformed and emotion-warped opinions in voting booths, they again become largely intelligent, responsible, and rational beings.

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muirgeo November 3, 2008 at 2:51 pm

No one claims democracy is perfect. Indeed Menckens essay can only be described as elitist. If you have a better alternative system I'd love to see it.

I'd argue indeed we did vote in a moron the last 2 elections ( of course I'm not even convinced the vote wasn't rigged) but now I believe the system will correct because MOST people see the errors of voting in a moron.

But seriously Don your economic principles mean nothing without explaining a political context for which they can flourish.

Sam Grove November 3, 2008 at 3:00 pm

He has, you just don't like them.

Sam Grove November 3, 2008 at 3:02 pm

Most people are elitist. They just hold to different elites.

"Progressive" elitism has been the dominant theme for over seven decades.

Adam November 3, 2008 at 3:04 pm

By the way, please do not accuse me of being elitist. I can't speak for Mencken, but I'm quite sure that the same person who is an imbecile in the voting both is an incredibly insightful, talented, and careful welder, taxicab driver, computer-software engineer, Hollywood actor, housewife, furniture mover, professional athlete, novelist, retail clerk — you name it.

Forgive me Professor Boudreaux, but elitist is exactly what I would call this line of argument. Being an "imbecile in the voting booth" implies one can be the opposite; a genius in the voting booth. I suspect that this genius would be someone who voted based on your particular notions of what is right thinking.

You may make individualist arguments on behalf of economic liberty, but that does not make the argument you are now making any less elitist.

Steve November 3, 2008 at 3:04 pm

Just read Steve Conover's post regarding muirgeo. LOL. pinhead.

Virtual Memories November 3, 2008 at 3:09 pm

That's why I'M voting for President Camacho!

Keith November 3, 2008 at 3:47 pm

Quote from Adam: "I suspect that this genius would be someone who voted based on your particular notions of what is right thinking."

I can't speak for Mr. Boudreaux, but for myself, a genius would not be voting on any particular notions of what he thinks is right.

Democracy has absolutely nothing to do with what is right or not right. Exactly where did this strange idea came from that some how a majority, no matter how concocted, can somehow divine what is right.

Marcus November 3, 2008 at 3:47 pm

"Forgive me Professor Boudreaux, but elitist is exactly what I would call this line of argument. Being an "imbecile in the voting booth" implies one can be the opposite; a genius in the voting booth. I suspect that this genius would be someone who voted based on your particular notions of what is right thinking.}
– [b]Posted by: Adam | Nov 3, 2008 3:04:13 PM[/b]

The argument of the irrational voter is not based so much on the premise that people are irrational but rather that the incentives of voting are irrational.

Adam November 3, 2008 at 3:58 pm

Democracy has absolutely nothing to do with what is right or not right.

OK…so if I believe that making war is always and everywhere immoral, and so vote for an anti-war candidate…this has nothing to do with right or wrong?

If a candidate holds a press meeting to make arguments on the merits of an Aparteid system…the fact that today this would make them unelectable has nothing to do with what people believe about right and wrong?

If my liberal friend won't vote for anyone who is openly against gay marriage, and my Republican friend won't vote for anyone who openly supports gay marriage–notions of right and wrong do not come into this, anywhere?

The argument of the irrational voter is not based so much on the premise that people are irrational but rather that the incentives of voting are irrational.

Right. And we economists just so happen to know what would be right and rational, if only the incentives were properly aligned.

Please.

Bret November 3, 2008 at 4:06 pm

That's about as elitist as you can get, in my opinion. It's also preposterous, in my opinion, that everybody can be wonderful all the time, except while voting.

Mcwop November 3, 2008 at 4:06 pm

Muirgeo, maybe you have not noticed the Democrats rubber stamping much of the moron's work (e.g. Iraq). And what has the opposition done since retaking both houses? No a whole lot, as we are still in Iraq, and have a raft of other problems they did noting about.

piperTom November 3, 2008 at 4:10 pm

In 1920: "White House will be adorned by a downright moron." How incredibly prescient! It came true 81 years later.

Geoff November 3, 2008 at 4:16 pm

I have been thinking quite a bit about the impact of a larger voter turnout on local/state governments this election. So many people will be voting in this election , specifically for president, who have not voted in the recent elections. Do these voters care about their local/state elections? Are they informed? Do they simply not vote in those races?

In a time of panic and fear, I hope that new voters don't underestimate the importance of local/state elections. I personally value these as much, if not more than the office of President.

Marcus November 3, 2008 at 4:17 pm

"Right. And we economists just so happen to know what would be right and rational, if only the incentives were properly aligned."
Posted by: Adam | Nov 3, 2008 3:58:55 PM

I don't see Don telling welders how to weld or an actors how to act.

I believe the essence of Don's claim is people make their decisions differently away from the voting booth than they do in it.

Incentives matter.

Marcus November 3, 2008 at 4:17 pm

Arg! Perhaps I should give up on the html tags!

Adam November 3, 2008 at 4:24 pm

I don't see Don telling welders how to weld or an actors how to act.

So voters should be telling economists who should be put into power and why? Who is the specialist in the case of voting, Marcus?

I realize that people face different incentives at the polls than they do at the grocery store. That is irrelevant. He specifically stated that they were an "imbecile" when voting–you want to tell me that that isn't an elitist argument?

Mcwop November 3, 2008 at 4:28 pm

Geoff, they do not care about local elections, here in Baltimore the populace has elected morons for about 30+ years. Of course, only morons actually run for office here, so I am not sure what to expect.

C. Ashbaugh November 3, 2008 at 4:30 pm

I could well be wrong, but for me, Don's claim to elitism is not one of saying he thinks he doesn't know better how the people should vote — of course he thinks he does (and I agree with him). The people don't think they are voting for economic recession, but with government interventionists being elected, they are. If they properly knew how policies affected the economy, they would vote for free market candidates.

The reason this isn't elitist, at least in my mind, is because Don does not in any way think he is on a different level as a human being, or of a different moral worth. Libertarians give a basic human dignity and moral worth to each individual, but certainly that allows for individuals equal in rights to be unequal in income, intelligence, and a wealth of other areas (no pun intended).

Secondly, our founding fathers knew most people are fools, hence the Constitution. The Constitution is effectively(though less so as time goes on) a limit on voter foolishness, meaning that even if the majority want to, they can't deprive any person or group of their rights by vote. It's a heck of a lot harder to get enough people to agree to change the Constitution, thank goodness, and that is a safeguard on our liberties, though, as time has shown, not a totally adequate one.

Marcus November 3, 2008 at 4:35 pm

"So voters should be telling economists who should be put into power and why? Who is the specialist in the case of voting, Marcus?"

No one.

"I realize that people face different incentives at the polls than they do at the grocery store. That is irrelevant. He specifically stated that they were an "imbecile" when voting–you want to tell me that that isn't an elitist argument?"

In the voting booth, wouldn't "imbecile" cover economists too? I didn't see the claim that all voters are imbeciles except for voters who are economists.

Adam November 3, 2008 at 4:35 pm

The Constitution is effectively(though less so as time goes on) a limit on voter foolishness

And how exactly was this ever the case?

It's not as though the Constitution was ever some sort of fiery sword that could be brought down from on high when actual policy deviated from its mandates. It is only, and has only ever been, some paper with writing on it.

It only serves as a constraint in as much as it is a part of our traditions that we value; if voters held it and the principles it espoused in no great esteem, it would become entirely irrelevant.

Adam November 3, 2008 at 4:38 pm

In the voting booth, wouldn't "imbecile" cover economists too? I didn't see the claim that all voters are imbeciles except for voters who are economists.

Well ok, then we're back to the post before this one: implying that voting at all makes you an imbecile. No less elitist, especially if you choose not to vote.

jorod November 3, 2008 at 4:50 pm

People love to cut off their noses to spite their faces….

Bret November 3, 2008 at 4:56 pm

Marcus wrote: "In the voting booth, wouldn't "imbecile" cover economists too?"

Except Don (or was it Russ or both) have repeatedly made the argument that economists know that it's irrational to even vote, so we can assume that they don't vote. So therefore, everybody but economists are imbeciles at least part of the time.

MWG November 3, 2008 at 5:04 pm

Go to the podcast from Sept 24th. He does a good job of discussing the key points of this article.

http://www.cato.org/dailypodcast/podcast-archive.php

Marcus November 3, 2008 at 5:07 pm

"Except Don (or was it Russ or both) have repeatedly made the argument that economists know that it's irrational to even vote, so we can assume that they don't vote. So therefore, everybody but economists are imbeciles at least part of the time."
Posted by: Bret | Nov 3, 2008 4:56:34 PM

Even if I take your argument at face value it does not follow that everybody but economists are imbeciles as something like only 50% of eligible voters vote.

Adam November 3, 2008 at 5:18 pm

Even if I take your argument at face value it does not follow that everybody but economists are imbeciles as something like only 50% of eligible voters vote.

Ok, then people who vote are imbeciles? You're still sort of dancing around the underlying elitism of the argument. At the very least, it is insulting to those of us who do vote and believe that we should.

Bret November 3, 2008 at 5:22 pm

Marcus, those are minor details.

Marcus November 3, 2008 at 5:25 pm

"Ok, then people who vote are imbeciles? You're still sort of dancing around the underlying elitism of the argument. At the very least, it is insulting to those of us who do vote and believe that we should."
– Posted by: Adam | Nov 3, 2008 5:18:41 PM

OK. Tell us, why should you vote? Or, a slightly different question, why is voting rational?

Adam November 3, 2008 at 5:39 pm

OK. Tell us, why should you vote? Or, a slightly different question, why is voting rational?

I vote because I believe it's the right thing for a citizen of a democracy to do. I don't believe that they should have to, but that they ought to. I'm not one of those who believes in pushing people to "get out the vote"; it is your choice.

My reasons for believing it is a duty are simply traditional; I have been raised in America in a community that very much believes it to be so, and am proud to be a part of that.

My objection however is not against opting out of voting; it is against being self-righteous on behalf of abstaining.

As for whether or not it is "rational"; I am utterly indifferent. I have no interest in any attempts to bring rationalism into normative discussions; even Economists' peculiar spin on it.

Marcus November 3, 2008 at 5:41 pm

"Marcus, those are minor details."
– Posted by: Bret | Nov 3, 2008 5:22:25 PM

It seems very germane to the issue to me.

It appears half the population doesn't believe voting once every 4-years in the presidential election is worth the time and the effort they would have to invest in educating themselves on the issues, or that it is not even worth the time and effort to go vote.

So my question is, what do you get out of it?

On the lighter side, some people I see who do vote seem to get a great deal of return on their 'voting investment' from the 'I voted' sticker they proudly wear.

Randy November 3, 2008 at 5:49 pm

Adam,

"My objection however is not against opting out of voting; it is against being self-righteous on behalf of abstaining."

So its only okay for those who do believe in a duty to vote to be self-righteous?

Adam November 3, 2008 at 5:59 pm

So its only okay for those who do believe in a duty to vote to be self-righteous?

Not really. I find the people who accost me everywhere and try to get me to register (when I already have, thank you) to be a nuisance; I find the celebrity ads to be condescending.

And perhaps I myself am being self-righteous, but I'd like to think my comments can fairly be viewed as criticism of what amounts to an insult to my intelligence, and the intelligence of those who believe what I believe.

On the blog of someone I largely respect (and often agree with), which allows people to comment freely, I don't think I'm being too unreasonable to voice my criticism when something I value is being sneered at. I don't pretend that my comments are of any significance–and of course they could have been ignored entirely. Or deleted–it is not my blog, and if Professor Boudreaux or Professor Roberts found me to be a nuisance and decided to delete my comments, that would be their prerogative.

Of course I also love controversy and probably would have stopped checking a long time ago if I hadn't gotten any response! Hahaha

muirgeo November 3, 2008 at 6:36 pm

Just read Steve Conover's post regarding muirgeo. LOL. pinhead.

Posted by: Steve

Yeah. He banned me from his blog. No abusive language… just made him uncomfortable. So I add that as a notch on my list of blog debate victories. Whenever you've been banned simply for holding an opposing view I'd consider that a victory.

C. Ashbaugh November 3, 2008 at 6:43 pm

The Constitution is just a piece of paper with writing on it? Do you actually feel intellectually secure in the assertion that it's impact on the development of American government is equal with any other "piece of paper with writing on it"? I think I can fairly demonstrably show that the Constitution has been the single most important document to our development thus far.

I'll grant you that hypothetically everyone could just decide it didn't matter that it existed, but clearly that hasn't happened and rule of law really doesn't work that way. I'm not sure of your point, to be honest.

muirgeo November 3, 2008 at 6:55 pm

People are too uninformed to have rational vote outcomes. So as argued in"The Myth of the Rational Voter" people do better when they vote via the market.

You know like those people who voted themselves interest only balloon loan mortgagees and are now walking the streets. Or intelligent economic voters like me who filled their 401K with toxic CDO's and derivatives ( right in there in my indexed funds)…. yeah I did that because I'm an informed buyer.

Bret November 3, 2008 at 6:57 pm

Marcus asked: "So my question is, what do you get out of it [voting]?"

Me personally? Nothing, of course. As the professors here often point out, the odds of any one individual affecting the results of an election are essentially zero (an upper bound of those odds is (2^n)/(n!+1)).

What society gets is a "real" poll of a representative sample of people on a number of candidates and issues. It sheds some light on where everybody stands with more authority than the plethora of pre-election polls. Whether it's Obama by a landslide or a squeaker for Obama makes a difference. People will use that information.

But that's not the subject at hand. The question that I and several others here have is whether or not it's elitist to consider that people are uninformed imbeciles when voting.

And I personally also question the hypothesis that voters do most other things in life with rationality yet revert to emotion and vote in ways that work against their total interests as humans when in the voting booth. Note that somebody's economic interest may not be equivalent to their overall interest.

Steve November 3, 2008 at 7:19 pm

When you fill up your cupboards with trophies of your victories, invite me home, I would to pause and marvel at them all. ROTFL.

Martin Brock November 3, 2008 at 7:20 pm

Randy, "Pietro Poggi-Corradini on Inequality" is not accepting posts, so I've moved my reply to your post here.

Okay, I can play that game. So there is no productive activity and all wealth is politically generated.

You don't play my game here, because I nowhere ever suggest that there is no productive activity and all wealth is politically generated. I say instead that some wealth is a matter of entitlement to govern capital and not the productivity of the labor of the capitalist. Classical liberals since Ricardo have accepted this premise. I'm the classical liberal here.

First, if all wealth is the result of political activity then the issue has already been settled.

False premise. All income is not the result of entitlement to govern capital. Some is, and some isn't.

Second, any redistribution and/or restrictions would be nothing but more political activity and no productive activity would result from it.

I don't propose any redistribution. I propose a limitation of the entitlement to consume the yield of capital rather than investing it. Precisely how much of an individual's income is the yield of his own labor, rather than the yield of capital he is entitled to govern, is practically impossible to determine, particularly for the most wealthy. A progressive consumption tax simply recognizes this fact.

Oil Shock November 3, 2008 at 7:23 pm

OT

Since the bailout bill passed, I have been frequently disturbed to hear “experts” wrongly blaming the free market for our recent economic problems and calling for more regulation. In fact, further regulation can only make things worse.

It is important to understand that regulators are not omniscient. It is not feasible for them to anticipate every possible thing that could go wrong with whatever industry or activity they are regulating. They are making their best guesses when formulating rules. It is often difficult for those being regulated to understand the many complex rules they are expected to follow. Very wealthy corporations hire attorneys who may discover a myriad of loopholes to exploit and render the spirit of the regulations null and void. For this reason, heavy regulation favors big business against those small businesses who cannot afford high-priced attorneys

read the rest

kurt November 3, 2008 at 7:42 pm

Ah well, if voting made any difference, they would make it illegal.

Dr. T November 3, 2008 at 7:43 pm

Anyone who studies history will have to agree with Mencken's statement. It's similar to the adage, "People get the government they deserve." That's why, to an idealist (such as a libertarian), democracy doesn't work.

Majority rule rarely means wise rule, especially when the majority is too lazy or too unintelligent to understand important issues. Instead, they vote for politicians using no more logic than they use to pick their favorite sports teams, soap operas, or rock bands.

Adam November 3, 2008 at 7:55 pm

The Constitution is just a piece of paper with writing on it? Do you actually feel intellectually secure in the assertion that it's impact on the development of American government is equal with any other "piece of paper with writing on it"?

And by what mechanism did it achieve this impact? Did the ink jump off of the page and drown any congressman entertaining any thoughts of passing a law abridging freedom of speech? Did the document itself give them a severe paper cut?

It is significant only in as much as it expressed the values of a people at a particular point in time, and, in expressing them, helped to preserve their place in our nation's traditions.

It's not like you can go and just write up any old constitution and expect the same results. There is no formula for achieving what the constitution has achieved–even if its influence on policy has been steadily eroded, to have held such a prominent position as long as it has says a great deal about its place in our traditions.

So, to reiterate: the constitution by itself is powerless constrain anybody; in as much as the principles it expresses have done so has been a result of their place in our customs.

Ray Gardner November 3, 2008 at 8:16 pm

but I'm quite sure that the same person who is an imbecile in the voting both is an incredibly insightful, talented, and careful. . . um, professor.

Fixed it for you.

PhDs are notoriously silly when it comes to politics. Present company excepted of course.

brotio November 3, 2008 at 8:19 pm

Here's the context of Mierduck's "victory" at Skeptical:

"George Balella, aka muirgeo: How disingenuous of you.

You asked the same question at Cafe Hayek two months ago, and got a lot of answers from the folks over there. Why did you decide *not* to disclose the analysis you had already received from Cafe Hayek?

I noticed you had nothing to say in response to the reactions you got in this article: http://tinyurl.com/5z8wzc

I also noticed that many of the comments you received were similar to the information in my article on household income, which obviously didn't do you any good.

Don Boudreaux seems to have more patience with your deceitful trolling than I can muster ( http://tinyurl.com/5uj4pa ). I suggest you spend your time at Cafe Hayek instead of here, George.

Posted by: Steve Conover | 01 November 2008 at 08:02"

That post by Mr. Conover was followed by this post (also from Mr Conover):

"to all, from Steve:

Our friend muirgeo will no longer be posting here. Anyone who misses him can keep an eye on Cafe Hayek ( http://tinyurl.com/8jhx9 ), where Russ Roberts and Don Boudreaux, of George Mason University and of EconTalk fame ( http://tinyurl.com/6b3423 ), keep letting him embarrass himself.

FYI, here's what Don Boudreaux told me today, and gave me permission to post, regarding his experience with muirgeo…

———
Muirgeo is as thick-headed and as annoying as they come. Yet I fear that if Russ and I bar him (and the likes of him) at Cafe Hayek it will appear that we are fearful of disagreement — which we aren't. True, his posts are poorly reasoned and uninformed (and poorly written); he appears to know nothing about economics and history beyond what one gets from network news and talk shows. And like all such people mired so deeply in ignorance, he knows so little that he's cock-sure of himself to the point of being a parody.

And yet, tolerating this sort of prattle is worth our while.

Thanks.

Don"

I have gone on record defending the Cafe for not banning the troll and I still stand by that defense. Time-and-again, Mierduck proves that he is a mierdiot, but I'm happy that the Cafe isn't like Kos regarding who is allowed to post. We who comment on this blog can effectively ban Mierduck by not feeding the troll – IF we (I include myself in this) get tired enough of the mierdiocy to stop feeding him.

Randy November 3, 2008 at 8:22 pm

Martin,

"All income is not the result of entitlement to govern capital. Some is, and some isn't."

I'm glad that you see my point. And the part that is the result of productive activity is subject to incentives and disincentives.

Randy November 3, 2008 at 8:32 pm

The Constitution is propaganda. It was designed to appease the highly libertarian population of the time and to establish the legitimacy of the revolutionary political class. As the population is no longer libertarian, but instead craves security at any cost, the Constitution is no longer necessary. It has already been modified very nearly to the point of meaninglessness, and I expect that it will be entirely abandoned within the next few decades (and quite possibly within the span of the next administration). However, I am not completely pessimistic. I believe that the abandonment of libertarian principles will result in such a massive degree of insecurity as to bring about their revival.

C. Ashbaugh November 3, 2008 at 9:36 pm

Adam, really, is it not assumed that when someone suggests an artifact is significant, they suggest it is not significant for it's material value or ability but for its significance on society? If your primary complaint with my remark was that you don't think paper and ink are in and of themselves significant, well, no argument there.

I think the rest of my point stands, in light of your last post.

I don't believe any self-respecting constitutional historian or law professor would argue that the primary purpose and objective of the US Constitution was propaganda of the masses. Perhaps that was part of the idea, I do not know for sure. I do know, however, that the ideals of the Constitution are still rather widely held in the US, despite some trends to the contrary. Simply comparing the state of civil rights in the US to other countries shows our reluctance to release civil liberties, a few examples off the top of my head:

Though some presidential candidates dislike it, the US is remarkably free about speech and press, in opposition to Canada and a variety of other European nations that have laws against hate speech for certain groups or denying the Holocaust (as evil as that may be, it is not righting a wrong to restrict speech in its name).

Also, the US as of this moment still persists in its more clear adherence to negative rights than other countries, though again that might change with the election. After all, most Americans opposed the bailout — we do have some remnant who believe in responsibility. Perhaps I am just more optimistic.

vidyohs November 3, 2008 at 9:47 pm

I don't believe it, and muirduck, martinduck, et. al. is the reason.

Adam November 3, 2008 at 10:02 pm

C. Ashbaugh, it's a point well made. I do share your optimism.

(and for the record the comment about propaganda or whatever was made by Randy, not me)

Thanks for an enjoyable discussion; I apologize if I started splitting hairs unnecessarily–I do tend to get carried away.

GIl November 3, 2008 at 10:54 pm

Is the reason Libertarians oppose Democracy and voting due to 'majority voting making decisions' doesn't appear in the marketplace? Bosses aren't expected to take orders on how to run their businesses because 'majority of workers created a business plan'. Tenants can't outvote landlords' ownership rights – they can give polite suggestions, threaten to leave for a better offer or leave searching for a better offer.

As far as I'm concerned government is the public equivalent of private landowning. Presumably by the same token landtenants can't vote the landowners in or out rather (because it denies the landowners' right to their private property) they 'love it or leave it' and hope that private landowners will wonderfully compete with one another (tough luck if it's currently a 'landowner's market').

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