H.L. Mencken, “The Triumph of the Have-Not,” The American Mercury, vol. XLIII, no. 169 (January 1938), pp. 16-22. With thanks to Mises.org for making it available in PDF. For more Mencken see Mencken.info.
Of the Planned Economy that was to have brought the More Abundant Life to all Americans, however low-down, not much continues to glow and function at the end of the first lustrum save its central moral system. Virtually everything else has been bitched more or less by the implacable struggle for power among the planners, whose intelligence, though maybe not mountain high, is still high enough to prevent them being fooled by one another. The place to hear them slanged with real passion is not Wall Street, but Washington. There, wearing New Deal ribands, you will find gathered together all the real experts in the infamies of the New Dealers, beginning at the top. The town becomes a cauldron of criticism and counter-criticism comparable to the Greenwich Village of 1915. In order to be soothed by anything charitable and friendly about a given wizard, A, you must wait on that wizard himself, and even so the chances are that he will cut his apologia short, and devote the rest of the séance to damning wizards B, C, D, and … n. In the horrible din of objurgation even selfpraise has been half adjourned.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to assume that these consecrated men lack any common inspiration or common goal. After all, they do manage to hang together, grouch or no grouch, and when men hang together it is scientific to look for an idea that all share, and if not an idea, then at least an hallucination. In the present case that organizing concept is certainly not hard to detect. It runs through each and everyone of the multitudinous devices of the New Deal, and none other runs with it. Gushing from the White House, it engulfs all the wizards high and low, whatever their disparities and antagonisms otherwise, and then spreads out over the country, to fetch at last the remotest agents and beneficiaries of the More Abundant Life. It is, in brief, the doctrine that there is something ineradicably indecent, and even criminal, about getting on in the world — that the only citizen of a free Republic who really deserves the countenance of authority is that one who lags behind his neighbors in whatever he happens to undertake, and is frankly envious of them, and believes in conscience that the government ought to throw all its awful powers into dragging them down to his level. Yet more briefly, it is the idea that the have-not is a better fellow, ipso facto, than the have.
If you will find me a New Deal project in which this notion is not implicit I’ll he glad to submit to baptism by any Christian rite, however ignominious. And if you will find me a project embracing it which the wizards have not, at some time or other, tried to add to their arcanum I’ll be glad to go on to confirmation and communion. It is the essence of their whole metaphysic, and if it were taken away they would have no metaphysic left. To be sure, they did not invent it, and neither have they any monopoly of it. In the form of hatred of the fellow having a bawdier, gaudier time we saw it in full glory in the days of Prohibition, and in the same form it engines and illuminates the common yap attitude toward city falk, at all times and everywhere. Even the narrowing of its application to the economic sphere is not a New Deal novelty, for that was done nearly a century ago by the primeval Marx brother, Bunco. But the question whether it is new or old is, after all, irrelevant. The important thing, and the indubitable thing, is that the Washington wizards have elevated the notion of the superiority of the inferior to the dignity of a State Religion, and thereby upset, at least officially, the contrary doctrine that had flourished among us since the first settlements. If there was anything that marked off the typical American of the days before the current Aufk1iirung it was certainly his belief in and high veneration for worldly success. But now, if he would avoid being shoved into Hell with Lord Macaulay, Andy Mellon, Benjamin Franklin, William H. McGuffey, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and other such fallen angels, he must be prepared to admit that getting along and paying his own way are crimes against society, and that the mendicant riding on his back is a better man.
In theory, of course, this proscription of the competent runs only against those whose competence takes the form of florid money-hogging, to wit, the so-called Economic Royalists. But that is theory only; in actuality, the chief victims, if only because of their enormously greater number, are persons in much lower income brackets. What happens when the Economic Royalists are shot at is precisely what happened in the Russian Utopia when the kulaks were shot at. The bullet that the Marxian idealists aimed there at a forty-cow farmer presently hit a ten-cow farmer, and then bounced off to nick a one-cow farmer, and finally landed in the gizzard of a no-cow farmer. In other words, what began as a holy war against rich and insatiable farmers soon turned into a war against all farmers, and in the end there were no more farms in Russia, but only a series of State sweatshops, with Simon Legrees from Moscow cracking their whips over vast chain-gangs of slaves.
The likeness of this instructive phenomenon to the course of the New Deal must be manifest. One example will be enough. I point to the grandiose congeries of imbecilities known as the TVA. Its ostensible purpose is to supply the hinds of the Tennessee Valley with cheap electric power, and so make them fat, rich, and happy; its actual purpose is to bust the Southern power companies. Well, what will be the effect of busting them, supposing it to be achieved? The first effect, obviously, will be to turn loose upon the country a gang of Economic Royalists full of bile, and with such salvage as they have been able to carry off from the wreck — maybe not much, but enough, you may be sure, to stakethem for fresh forays, for they have had plenty of warning, and know a falling market when they see it. The second, and immensely more important effect, will be to squeeze and loot every investor who put his. honest and hard-earned money into the power companies.
Who are these investors? You will find them everywhere in the country, but you will find them especially in the South. Some of them forked up their money directly, and have stocks or bonds to show for it. Others entrusted it to insurance companies or deposited it in savings-banks, with the officers thereof holding the papers. But whether they forked it up directly or handed it over to agents, they will lose a large part of it, or maybe all of it, when the companies are at last brought to ruin. What this money represents is surely plain enough. It represents the savings of all those Southerners who have worked hard at their various avocations, lived within their means, and laid by something for a rainy day. It is a large moiety of the diligently and honestly accumulated wealth of the whole region. Once it is destroyed, those who earned it will be brought down to the level of the TVA’s clients, which is to say, to the level of persons who must look for security, not to work and thrift, but to the stealings of politicians.
I have said that the actual purpose of the TVA is to bust the Southern power companies. That purpose was concealed at the start by a barrage of tall talk, but it is now too palpable to be denied. The rest is only by-product, some of it more or less defensible in reason, but most of it clearly not. The same motive runs through the whole New Deal, and very few of its departments show anything else. The origins of this implacable hatred of all successful enterprise I leave to the Freudians, and content myself with pointing to the fact. There is only one sin in the moral code of the wizards and that is the sin of getting on. The sharecropper is a better man than the farmer who tills his own land, and among the farmers who till their own land the only ones not downright felonious are those who have mortgages on it, and are in default on interest and principal.
The thing goes to fantastic lengths. In the Labor field all the rooting of the wizards, with the immense power of the Federal Government behind them, is in favor of the machine-line robot and against the man who knows and practices an honest and useful trade. The latter is a villain (in the A.F. of L.) for refusing to carry the former on his back (in the CIO). Competence, diligence, experience, skill — these things no longer count in reckoning up the value and dignity of a working man; he has done enough for his living, by the New Deal standard, if he can stand in line six or seven hours, and go through a few simian motions, and maintain a sufficient hatred of his boss and his job. So on more refined and esoteric levels. How much of the taxpayers’ money has been spent to date in fostering the national letters I don’t know, but certainly it must run to many millions. I have yet to hear of a nickel going to any actual author. All the money has been poured out to quacks and yearners of the sort who used to hang about Greenwich Village, and then flocked to the Left Bank to concoct masterpieces that never came off, and then flocked back to write for the pink weeklies and go on the dole. The only visible test of talent here is the standard New Deal test of virtue: a firm conviction that any man smart enough and industrious enough to make a decent living is a public enemy. Add a whoop for Moscow, and you are on the payroll. The net product is a mass of rubbish, full of the puerile Radicalism that is bred of bad beer. Even after grammarians hired for the purpose have clawed it into something vaguely resembling English, it lingers on the level of high-school essays and pulp fiction. The bedbug intelligentsia, to be sure, praise it as better than Pater, but so do they praise the crude daubs, all showing Lenin in a halo, that are paid for by the taxpayer under the name of “murals”. These “murals”, shipped to dingy towns to adorn the local courthouses and city halls, are commonly denounced as insults to the flag by the yaps, who prefer Washington Crossing the Delaware. But even when they are shipped back covered with indignant inscriptions, the taxpayer gets no rebate.
The sciences, I gather, are to follow anon. It already appears, indeed, that the only doctors worthy of faith and credit are those who have no patients: the rest are exploiters of the downtrodden, and are to be brought under the control of Hopkins uplifters and Farley politicians. In the end, as in Russia, only incurable proletarians will be admitted to the medical schools, and Gray’s Anatomy will be displaced by Ayer’s Almanac and the New Republic.
After five years of this sort of buffoonery the net results begin to show themselves. They are, save in one particular, very meager, and indeed almost imaginary. Something on the order of twenty billions of money has been thrown away, the taxpayer. has been saddled with a horde of more. than a million jobholders, and a thousand new sure cures for all the sorrows of humanity have been shoved down the public gullet, but all the malaises that afflicted American society when the show began are still going on in full blast. The farmers, succored semi-annually since 1933, continue to bellow for more help; the working men of the cities, rescued from Economic Royalists, have been handed over to labor racketeers; business, slowly recovering in spite of all the quackery, has been put back again; and the savings of the-country, reduced in large part by expropriation, have been proscribed and imperiled as to the remainder. The Roosevelt Administration began with the country in trouble, but holding the means in hand for getting out, and with the spirit to make the attempt. Five years of demagogy have left it still in trouble, but with its hands tied and its spirit beginning to peter out. The one indubitable accomplishment of the reigning mountebanks is the one I began with — the propagation of the great moral dogma that the worth and honor of a citizen runs in inverse proportion to his competence, industry, and thrift — that the special glory of the Republic is the noble fellow who is congenitally unfit for the struggle for existence, and must be kept alive by constant transfusions from his fitter neighbor.
There is nothing else to the New Deal that can be pinned down, identified, subjected to scientific examination. For the rest it is simply an amorphous agglomeration of discordant hooeys, some of them showing a specious color of plausibility, but the majority as obviously irrational as spiritualism, theMarxian dialectic, or Christian Science. Its humors I do not deny. They have been gaudy, and, for one, I have enjoyed them immensely. If it be true, as I have often argued, that the prime function of government is to entertain, then government by bogus experts is plainly a roaring success. To be sure, there are some bad showmen in the Washington outfit — for example, Ickes, Ma Perkins, and Cordell Hull — but their ineptitudes have been more than counterbalanced by the feats of indubitable virtuosi — for example, Wallace, Hopkins, Jim Farley, John L. Lewis, and Hugo Black. The appointment of Hugo to the Supreme Court gave me joy of a kind that is rare in this world, and his subsequent squirmings and tergiversations damn nigh made me bust. There will be no better show on earth until a volcano lets go under New York.
The future? I see no prospect of immediate or near change, even by catastrophe. A foreign war would make the New Deal sorcerers safe in the saddle until its end, which might be years off, and another Depression would only set them to saving us all over again. The Hon. Mr. Roosevelt himself appears to be secure until the money gives out — or he is induced by conscience, or sober second thought, or something else of that unpleasant character to seek what the Salvation Army calls the penitentform. Neither of these things is likely, at least at the present writing. The federal debt is still below forty billions, and it will not begin to impede further borrowing until it goes well beyond fifty. My guess is that the right hone gentleman will be re-elected triumphantly in 1940, and maybe again in 1944. If he ever begins to hint that he chooses not to run, it will be no more than a sign that he believes the jig is up — and has better dope on the subject than the rest of us. Otherwise, he will undoubtedly go on from prodigy to prodigy, saving fresh millions of the lowly every year, and continuing his radio crooning for the New Deal moral system.
The ultimate issue I do not undertake to prognosticate. All that is now discernible is that the productive workers of the United States will earn and pay the cost in the long run. The actual Economic Royalists look to be safe enough. They serve admirably as bugaboos, but so far they have not been hurt seriously, and I assume that they will dodge as adroitly hereafter as they do now. Even in the midst of what has appeared superficially to be bloody and relentless war upon them, their dividends have increased much faster than wages. They have arranged a long series of eider-down mattresses to fall on, and the Washington wizards, despite a herculean effort, seem to be quite unable to substitute harrows. The true goats will be those millions of assiduous, laborious, and no doubt unimaginative and commonplace Americanos who work hard every day at something socially useful, and try to pay their own way, and ask only to be let alone. They include the overwhelming majority of mechanics and artificers, and the overwhelming majority of professional men, with maybe the lawyers and pedagogues excluded. They even include a formidable minority of farmers, not all of whom are crybabies and panhandlers, by any means. These sedulous persons are paying the bills now, and will pay them hereafter. The lazzaroni of all sorts, from the stock speculators at the top to the sharecroppers and Communist playwrights at the bottom, all ride on their backs, and hanging to each pants leg is a jobholder.
Let them console themselves by reflecting that, by the New Deal moral theology, they are not only without rights but also without virtue. Rectitude, it appears, is a mendicant monopoly. But sinners are proverbially happy — a fact eternally baffling to moral theologians. Maybe these new ones, once they get used to it, will learn how to rejoice in their infamy like their predecessors.
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