… is from page 331 of the 1996 Johns Hopkins University Press edition of H.L. Mencken’s 1956 collection, On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe ; specifically, it’s from Mencken’s October 26, 1936, article – published just before the national election pitting incumbent president Franklin Roosevelt against challenger Alf Landon – “Sham Battle”:
The state – or, to make the matter more concrete, the government – consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office. Their principal device to that end is to search out groups who pant and pine for something they can’t get, and to promise to give it to them. Nine times out of ten that promise is worth nothing. The tenth time it is made good by looting A to satisfy B. In other words, government is a broker in pillage, and every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.
Perhaps showing how much longer and more expansive the reach of government has become over the past 80 years, I suspect that were Mencken writing these words today he’d change nothing save to note both that lots more women have gotten into the looting-through-government business, and that the percentage of electoral promises made good by looting A to satisfy B has risen to well above the ten percent that Mencken estimated it to be on the eve of F.D.R.’s first re-election as U.S. president.