The Outstater

September 6, 2022

H.L. Mencken’s Revenge

THIS IS my mea culpa, and perhaps it is yours too.

When I began editing The Indiana Policy Review, when I first sat in the high-backed chair, I thought I would use our scholars’ knowledge and wisdom to help public officials and political leaders think through Indiana’s challenges. They could better see unintended consequences and avoid policy traps and snares. They would have on their desks credentialed resources that they otherwise could not access because of the time and energy constraints of practical governing. They would consider it a service, not a criticism.

Yes, you guessed it. Not too many years went by before I realized that Indiana officialdom wasn’t interested in improving the situation of individual Hoosiers so much as accruing influence, power and sinecure.

I know, I know, it’s an old story. A friend had to remind me of a famous quotation, “H.L. Mencken’s revenge” he called it: “The state — or, to make matters 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.”

Specifically, I had to come to grips with the fact that most municipal and state officials, while filling campaign chests with ease while winning reelection with acclaim, did not share what we had assumed was an inarguable common mission:

“To marshal the best thought on governmental, economic and educational issues at the state and municipal levels in ways that exalt the truths of the Declaration of Independence, especially as they apply to the interrelated freedoms of religion, property and speech, as they emphasize the primacy of the individual in addressing public concerns and as they recognize that equality of opportunity is sacrificed in pursuit of equality of results.”

It was simply ignored. But to this foundation’s credit it did not react as have so many of a certain political persuasion, that is, by capitalizing on the outrage, by chasing clicks and donations with constant alarms and flares. You know the type, daily promises to “save the Constitution” or “protect free speech” if you would send a dollar or two.

Instead, it focused on being a worthy chronicle of public policy, ruinous or not. The foundation’s officers realized Indiana still had a good number of thinking people in positions of respect and influence around the state. If they were armed with the facts they might at the right time be able to turn Indiana around. That, at least, was the observation of the great historian Arnold Toynbee — that God works not with majorities but with individuals.

We also realized that our children and grandchildren would not need for us to tell them that idiocy had prevailed, they would be living in it. What they would need to know is what went wrong. They would need an honest chronicle for that. The political commentator David Cole has come to the same conclusion:

“Why would they need to read some pundit from 2022 wailing, ‘A system that disfavors its best and brightest based on skin color is unjust’? They’ll know that already. What they’ll be asking is, ‘How did people let it happen?’ That’s what’ll interest them.”

I have an example, just an anecdote really.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to sit down with a man who was just beginning a political career. He wanted to know the foundation’s recommendation on economic policy. I was excited; this is how the foundation was meant to help.

I advised him to simply honor private property as an absolute. His face went blank so I threw in a quote from Ludwig von Mises: “If history could teach us anything, it would be that private property is inextricably linked with civilization.” I had brought a book to give him, Tom Bethell’s classic “The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages.” I recommended links to our Eric Schansberg and Cecil Bohanon.

But what about public-privater partnerships, he wanted to know. He was enthusiastic about using tax and bonding options  to fund economic-development projects and incentives — regional partnerships, splash pads, parking garages, hotels, stadiums, downtown renovation and the like.

There is no such thing, I had to tell him. Those are schemes, economics by press release. For when you say “public” in public-private partnership you mean the government, and when you say “private” you mean the economy. That vision is nonsensical. It has never worked.

In the end, he politely closed the meeting with, “I have no idea what you have been talking about.” 

So here we are. That fellow happens to be running for governor this next cycle, on the GOP ticket of all places. If he is elected, which I am told is likely if money is the measure, you will be able to tell your grandchildren why they can’t find jobs in Indiana.

It will not be what I wished for them, but it is the best that I could do. — tcl


Leave a Reply