Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A Purge for Legislatures, by H.L. Mencken

Brian, a supporter from the midwest, wrote:

I’m currently reading (and enjoying) H.L. Mencken’s selected collection of articles in a book called “A Mencken Chrestomathy.” In 1927, he wrote “A Purge for Legislatures.” I was so impressed by its brilliance and common sense that I retyped it here for your consideration. As he indicated that “[m]y plan belongs to any reformers who care to lift it,” I didn’t think there’d be a problem with forwarding it. (I apologize in advance for any typos.)

A Purge for Legislatures, by H.L. Mencken

A mood of constructive criticism being upon me, I propose forthwith that the method of choosing legislators now prevailing in the United States be abandoned and that the method used in choosing juries be substituted. That is to say, I propose that the men who make our laws be chosen by chance and against their will, instead of by fraud and against the will of all the rest of us, as now. But isn’t the jury system itself imperfect? Isn’t it occasionally disgraced by gross abuse and scandal? Then so is the system of justice devised and ordained by the Lord God Himself. Didn’t He assume that the Noachian Deluge would be a lasting lesson to sinful humanity – that it would put an end to all manner of crime and wickedness, and convert mankind into a race of Presbyterians? And wasn’t Noah himself, its chief beneficiary, lying drunk, naked and uproarious with a year after the ark landed on Ararat? All I argue for the jury system, invested by man, is that it is measurably better than the scheme invested by God. It has its failures and its absurdities, its abuses and its corruptions, but taking one day with another it manifestly works. It is not the fault of juries that so many murderers go unwhipped of justice, and it is not the fault of juries that so many honest men are harassed by preposterous laws. The juries find the gunman guilty: it is functionaries higher up, all politicians, who deliver them from the noose, and turn them out to resume their butcheries.

So I propose that our Legislatures be chosen as our juries are now chosen – that the names of all the men eligible in each assembly district be put into a hat (or, if no hat can be found that is large enough, into a bathtub), and that a blind moron, preferably of tender years, be delegated to draw out one. Let the constituted catchpolls then proceed swiftly to the man's house, and take him before he can get away. Let him be brought into court forthwith and put under bond to serve as elected, and if he cannot furnish the bond, let him be kept until the appointed day in the nearest jail.

The advantages that this system would offer are so vast and obvious that I hesitate to venture into the banality of rehearsing them. It would in the first place, save the commonwealth the present excessive cost of elections, and make political campaigns unnecessary. It would in the second place, get rid of all the heart-burnings that now flow out of every contest at the polls, and block the reprisals and charges of fraud that now issue from the heart-burnings. It would, in the third place, fill all the State Legislatures with men of a peculiar and unprecedented cast of mind – men actually convinced that public service is a public burden, and not merely a private snap. And it would, in the fourth and most important place, completely dispose of the present degrading knee-bending and trading in votes, for nine-tenths of the legislators, having got into office unwillingly, would be eager only to finish their duties and go home, and even those who acquired a taste for the life would be unable to increase the probability, even by one chance in a million, of their reelection.

The disadvantages of the plan are very few, and most of them, I believe, yield readily to analysis. Do I hear argument that a miscellaneous gang of tin-roofers, delicatessen dealers and retired bookkeepers, chosen by hazard, would lack the vast knowledge of public affairs needed by makers of laws? Then I can only answer (a) that no such knowledge is actually necessary, and (b) that few, if any, of the existing legislators possess it. The great majority of public problems, indeed, are quite simple, and any man may be trusted to grasp their elements in ten days who may be – and is – trusted to unravel the obfuscations of two gangs of lawyers in the same time. In this department the so-called expertness of so-called experts is largely imaginary. My scheme would have the capital merit of barring them from the game. They would lose their present enormous advantages as a class, and so their class would tend to disappear.

Would that be a disservice to the state? Certainly not. On the contrary, it would be a service of the first magnitude, for the worst curse of democracy, as we suffer under it today, is that it makes public office a monopoly of a palpably inferior and ignoble group of men. They have to abase themselves to get it, and they have to keep on abasing themselves in order to hold it. The fact reflects in their general character, which is obviously low. They are men congenitally capable of cringing and dishonorable acts, else they would not have got into public life at all. There are, of course, exceptions to that rule among them, but how many? What I contend is simply that the number of such exceptions is bound to be smaller in the class of professional job-seekers than it is in any other class, or in the population in general. What I contend, second, is that choosing legislators from that populations, by chance, would reduce immensely the proportion of such slimy men in the halls of legislation, and that the effects would be instantly visible in a great improvement in the justice and reasonableness of the laws.

Are juries ignorant? Then they are still intelligent enough to be entrusted with your life and mine. Are they venal? Then they are still honest enough to take our fortunes into their hands. Such is the fundamental law of the Germanic peoples, and it has worked for nearly a thousand years. I have launched my proposal that it be extended upward and onward, and the mood of constructive criticism passes from me. My plan belongs to any reformers who care to lift it.


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