H.L. Mencken and Leonard Read couldn’t have been more different, but each of them said some important things about life in a free society.
Henry Louis Mencken (1880–1956) was born in the city of Baltimore, Maryland, lived nearly all of his life in the house he grew up in, and died in his bed. He was a third-generation Baltimorean. Although he was baptized in the Episcopal Church, Mencken was not religious in the least. He was a journalist, an editor, and a literary and social critic.
Leonard E. Read (1898–1983) was born in the small town of Hubbardston, Michigan, moved to California, and finally settled in New York. Read was a religious man, serving as a board member of a Congregational church. After becoming the general manager of the Los Angeles branch of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he founded The Foundation for Economic Education in New York, and spent his life in defense of individual liberty, private property, the free market, and limited government.
Of all the books that Mencken wrote in his lifetime, and others compiled after his death from his newspaper and magazine articles, none has included anything from his column in the Baltimore Evening Sun called “The Free Lance.” None, that is, until the recent publication of A Saturnalia of Bunk: Selections from The Free Lance, 1911–1915 (Ohio University Press, 2017), edited, and with an introduction, by the literary critic S.T. Joshi, a leading authority on Mencken.
Mencken’s 1,200-word column ran six days a week for four and a half years. His 1,228 columns — all typed on a manual typewriter — comprise a million and a half words. He said that his “Free Lance job was the pleasantest” he had “ever had on a newspaper,” and that he “enjoyed it immensely.” Joshi has assembled a selection of Mencken’s columns and arranged them in eleven chapters, with titles and their dates of publication. The title of the book is taken from the first column reproduced in the book, which was originally published on December 30, 1911. After detailing twelve “proposals and propositions before the people” that are “frankly and unequivocally ridiculous,” Mencken describes them as “an endless saturnalia of bunk, of bluff, of stupidity, or insincerity, of false virtue, of nonsense, of pretense, of sophistry, of parology, of bamboozlement, of actorial posturing, of strident wind music, of empty words — even, at times, of downright fraud.”
Joshi maintains that “the best of the Free Lance material ranks with the best of Mencken’s journalism overall — in its satirical pungency, its rapierlike strokes of logic, its deadpan exposure of fallacy, hypocrisy, and absurdity, and its intellectual cogency as the reflections of a man who had worked out his philosophy of life both in broad parameters and in the smallest details.” A systematic reading of Mencken’s columns “allows us to ascertain a nearly complete view of Mencken’s political, religious, social, and cultural philosophy as it had evolved up to this point — and that philosophy underwent relatively few alterations in the course of his subsequent career.”
It is Mencken’s philosophy that we are interested in. Mencken “followed Mill in advocating the most minimal government involvement in those aspects of social life (particularly the legislation of morality) that have no direct relation to the protection of the citizen from external foes or internal threats.” A large number of Mencken’s Free Lance columns were devoted “to battling individuals and organizations who were seeking the moral reform of the city and the nation in such areas as prostitution, alcohol consumption, and cigarette smoking.” Although he acknowledged that “these things may in fact be vices,” Mencken “himself had no desire to engage in any of them except the moderate consumption of alcohol,” and “was averse to granting the government a heavy hand in their suppression.” He believed that it was the essence of freedom to allow people to engage in a vice, “so long as the enjoyment it produces is not outweighed by the injury it does.” In a 1913 column, he asserted that the citizen is “bound to do nothing that will endanger [his neighbors’] lives or imperil their property. He is bound to respect their liberties so long as the exercise of those liberties does not invade his own.”
It is in a column titled “Mencken and Materialism” that we see Mencken’s plan. Dr. Howard A. Kelly (1858–1943), as Joshi tells us in a helpful glossary of names, was a “gynecologist and surgeon who taught at Johns Hopkins Hospital from 1889-1943 and Johns Hopkins Medical School from 1893-1919” and “spoke out on moral and social subjects, advocating the abolition of prostitution and siding with Anthony Comstock and other vice crusaders.” Here is Mencken on how he differs with Dr. Kelly:
Even when two men pursue one and the same ideal, they often fall into irreconcilable differences over the manner of its attainment. Consider the commonplace ideal, visioned by practically all of us, of a carefree and happy human race. I should like to see it realized, and Dr. Kelly would like to see it realized. But observe how vastly we differ in our plans for its realization.
My plan is to let people do whatever they please, so long as they do not invade the right and freedom of other persons to do the same: that is, I see liberty of desire, of taste, of action as the capital essential to happiness.
But Dr. Kelly, with the very same end in view, advocates a diametrically contrary route to its attainment. That is to say, he proposes to make people happy by force, by terrorism, by compulsion. His plan, in brief, is to decide what sort of life is a happy one, and then compel them to live it.
Mencken identified himself as a libertarian long before it was common to do so. In a book-review column of 1922 he wrote, “I am, in brief, a libertarian of the most extreme variety, and know of no human right that is one-tenth as valuable as the simple right to utter what seems (at the moment) to be the truth.”
Unlike Mencken’s plan, which was only recently brought to light, Read’s rule has been common knowledge since the publication of his book Anything That’s Peaceful (Foundation for Economic Education, 1964). By his title, Read says that he means,
Let anyone do anything he pleases that’s peaceful or creative; let there be no organized restraint against anything but fraud, violence, misrepresentation, predation; let anyone deliver mail or educate or preach his religion or whatever, so long as it’s peaceful; limit society’s agency of organized force — government — to juridical and policing functions, tabulating the do-nots and prescribing the penalties against unpeaceful actions; let the government do this and leave all else to the free, unfettered market!
Read’s thesis is simply this: “Let anyone do anything he pleases, so long as it is peaceful; the role of government, then, is to keep the peace.” Read explains that “keeping the peace” means “no more than prohibiting persons from unpeaceful actions.” This is “all the prohibition” he wants from government. The government should be strictly limited to “juridical and policing functions.” Read said elsewhere that he
would have government defend the life and property of all citizens equally; protect all willing exchange; suppress and penalize all fraud, all misrepresentation, all violence, all predatory practices; invoke a common justice under law; and keep the records incidental to these functions. Even this is a bigger assignment than governments, generally, have proven capable of. Let governments do these things and do them well. Leave all else to men in free and creative effort.
When government goes beyond this and prohibits peaceful actions, “such prohibitions themselves are, prima facie, unpeaceful.”
Read saw just two classes of people in society: “In suggesting that the function of government is only to keep the peace, I raise the whole issue between statists or socialists, on the one hand, and the devotees of the free market, private property, limited government philosophy on the other.” He believed that “how much of a statist a person is can be judged by how far he would go in prohibiting peaceful actions.” He maintained that “the difference between the socialist and the student of liberty is a difference of opinion as to what others should be prohibited from doing.” This difference of opinion “highlights the essential difference between the collectivists — socialists, statists, interventionists, mercantilists, disturbers of the peace — and those of the peaceful, libertarian faith.” Read considered “such terms as communism, socialism, Fabianism, the welfare state, Nazism, fascism, state interventionism, egalitarianism, the planned economy, the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and the New Frontier” to be “simply different labels for much the same thing.”
Read went out of his way to make it very clear that the principle of individual liberty is not a license to just do as one pleases:
It is incorrect to think of liberty as synonymous with unrestrained action. Liberty does not and cannot include any action, regardless of sponsorship, which lessens the liberty of a single human being. To argue contrarily is to claim that liberty can be composed of liberty negations, patently absurd. Unrestraint carried to the point of impairing the liberty of others is the exercise of license, not liberty.
Be it noted that the libertarian in his hoped-for prohibition of unpeaceful actions does not have in mind any violence to anyone else’s liberty, none whatsoever. For this reason: The word liberty would never be used by an individual completely isolated from others; it is a social term. We must not, therefore, think of liberty as being restrained when fraud, violence, and the like are prohibited, for such actions violate the liberty of others, and liberty cannot be composed of liberty negations. This is self-evident. Thus, any accomplished student of liberty would never prohibit the liberty or the peaceful actions of another.
The caveat is that the exercise of one’s liberty must be peaceful and not violate the personal and property rights of others.
Stated briefly, here are Mencken’s plan and Read’s rule:
Let people do whatever they please, so long as they do not invade the right and freedom of other persons to do the same.
Let anyone do anything he pleases, so long as it is peaceful.
Mencken’s plan and Read’s rule can be applied to a host of personal-freedom issues.
Drug use. Although marijuana is legal for medical use in 29 states and legal for recreational use in 8 states, and 21 states have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of it, those same states still heavily regulate it and the federal government still classifies it as a Schedule I controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act, with a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision. And of course, the buying, selling, and possession of “harder” drugs is still illegal on the federal and state levels.
Using drugs may be addictive, unhealthy, and dangerous, but it is not for the government to decide what risks Americans are allowed to take and what kinds of behaviors they are allowed to engage in. Therefore, there should be no laws, restrictions, or regulations of any kind regarding the buying, selling, or possessing of any drug for any reason. What a man desires to inhale or ingest into his own body is his own business as long as his actions are peaceful and he respects the rights of others.
The war on drugs is anything but peaceful, and is an invasion of personal freedom, privacy, and property. If someone is high on drugs and commits murder, rape, armed robbery, assault, battery, theft, shoplifting, or burglary, then he should be arrested and charged with murder, rape, armed robbery, assault, battery, theft, shoplifting, or burglary — just as he would be if he were high on alcohol; being high on drugs has nothing to do with it. And besides, it makes no sense for the government to wage war on illegal drugs, when tobacco, alcohol, and prescription drugs kill far more people every year.
Ticket scalping. Ticket scalpers are entrepreneurs who provide a needed service. They make it possible for events to sell tickets more quickly and efficiently right up to the day of the event. The exchange of tickets for cash between a willing buyer and a willing seller is a peaceful activity that should never be prohibited as long as the event does not violate the property rights of the owner of the ground where the exchange is made.
Prostitution. Every crime should have a tangible and identifiable victim with real harm and measurable damages. Prostitution may be immoral, sinful, and corrupting, but it is an illegitimate function of government to legislate morality. Activities that are peaceful, private, voluntary, and consensual should never be criminalized — no matter how immoral someone thinks they are. Those with moral objections to prostitution have the right to try to persuade women to not become prostitutes and men not to seek their services. They do not have the right to use the force of government to stop people from engaging in activities that do not involve coercion or violence. And besides, if it is legal for a woman to provide free sexual services as often as she wants and to as many people as she wants, then why should it be illegal for her to charge for performing the same services? Especially since someone’s indirectly paying for sex by paying for dinner and a movie is not a crime.
Gun ownership. Governments regulate guns more than anything else. Dealers cannot sell guns without having a license from the government. A gun cannot be legally purchased without the buyer’s having to undergo a background check and endure a waiting period. Only certain types of guns and ammunition are permitted to be sold. Yet, owning a gun is in and of itself a peaceful action. The vast majority of the millions of guns in the hands of Americans are never used to commit crimes. Although it has been said many times before, it is nevertheless still true: Guns don’t kill; people do. No one should be prohibited from buying, selling, or owning a gun. Those who use guns to threaten or harm people should, of course, be punished commensurately because they are violating someone’s personal or property rights.
Gambling. Casinos are illegal in most states. In states where they are legal they are heavily regulated. Most forms of public and private gambling are forbidden. Gambling may be wasteful, addictive, and ruinous, but it is not the job of government to prevent or discourage anyone from doing it. Anyone should be able to do with his own money as he sees fit, even if that means gambling it away. Those with moral objections to gambling have the right to try to persuade people not to gamble. They do not have the right to use the force of government to stop people from engaging in activities that do not involve force or fraud. Gambling is a personal and individual decision and none of anyone’s business as long as the gambler’s conduct and interactions are peaceful, voluntary, and consensual, and the gambling doesn’t violate the property rights of the owner of the ground where the bets are being placed.
Organ sales. Selling the organs in your body while you are alive (like a kidney) or after you are dead (most everything else) is currently a criminal action even though it is a peaceful, voluntary activity that violates no one else’s rights. But if you own your own body, then you certainly also own the organs in your body. Since anyone should be able to do what he wants with his own body as long as his activities are peaceful and he doesn’t violate the personal or property rights of anyone else, anyone should have the freedom to sell his organs.
Travel. In almost every city in the United States, a driver faces the possibility of being stopped by a sobriety checkpoint and checked by police searching for drivers who might be impaired owing to alcohol or drug use. In some states in the Southwest, drivers may encounter domestic immigration checkpoints miles from the border where government agents check the citizenship and immigration status of drivers who act suspicious, appear to be nervous, claim to be lost, or just have a thick accent. Americans who wish to travel to countries such as Cuba face numerous restrictions and prohibitions. No American should be prevented from traveling wherever and whenever he pleases as long as he is not trespassing and as long as he is traveling peacefully.
Occupational licensing. Depending on the state, many occupations (barbering, practicing law, et cetera) require a certificate of permission and approval from a government-sponsored board. But why should anyone have to get permission from the government to open a business, engage in commerce, work in certain occupations, have a particular vocation, or provide a service to willing customers? Performing a service — as long as it is requested, mutually beneficial, peaceful, and respectful of the personal and property rights of third parties — should never have to be licensed.
Government should never punish individuals or businesses for engaging in entirely peaceful, voluntary, and consensual actions that do not aggress against the person or property of others. Only violent criminals should be incarcerated, and no one should ever be arrested or fined for committing a victimless crime. That is true no matter how many people support the government’s doing such things. Mencken’s plan and Read’s rule are the foundation of a free society.
This article was originally published in the May 2018 edition of Future of Freedom.