H.L. Mencken on the police

The Ludwig von Mises Institute (Mises was a guiding force in Austrian Economics and in some sense Hayek’s predecessor in that school) is getting ready to print Mencken’s “Notes on Democracy.” At their website they are offering this snippet about the role that police play in a democratic society:

What the common man longs for in this world, before and above all his other longings, is the simplest and most ignominious sort of peace: the peace of a trusty in a well-managed penitentiary. He is willing to sacrifice everything else to it. He puts it above his dignity and he puts it above his pride. Above all, he puts it above his liberty. The fact, perhaps, explains his veneration for policemen, in all the forms they take–his belief that there is a mysterious sanctity in law, however absurd it may be in fact.

A policeman is a charlatan who offers, in return for obedience, to protect him (a) from his superiors, (b) from his equals, and (c) from himself. This last service, under democracy, is commonly the most esteemed of them all. In the United States, at least theoretically, it is the only thing that keeps ice-wagon drivers, Y.M.C.A. secretaries, insurance collectors and other such human camels from smoking opium, ruining themselves in the night clubs, and going to Palm Beach with Follies girls…Here, though the common man is deceived, he starts from a sound premise: to wit, that liberty is something too hot for his hands—or, as Nietzsche put it, too cold for his spine.

Under the pressure of fanaticism, and with the mob complacently applauding the show, democratic law tends more and more to be grounded upon the maxim that every citizen is, by nature, a traitor, a libertine, and a scoundrel. In order to dissuade him from his evil-doing the police power is extended until it surpasses anything ever heard of in the oriental monarchies of antiquity.

Mencken wrote “Notes on Democracy” in 1920, and without reading more, right now, I can’t see these words in the context of the work as a whole. Given the year, Mencken might be reacting to the wartime measures taken in the Wilson administration that Jonah Goldberg does such a fine job describing in his book “Liberal Fascism.” Or to the onslaught of Prohibition.

My experience with the reaction of the “common man” to the police, at least the American “common man,” is exactly the opposite of Mencken’s. From my earliest years I absorbed two complementary attitudes from my family and community about the police: respect them and avoid them — actually, that would be more like respect them if you can’t avoid them.

At their core, the police represented something solid, which was the rule of law, but in the flux of their powers they represented, in descending order, trouble (with the law), trouble (with the individuals who were police officers), and trouble (where the police were used as instruments of busybodyism, a role that the police themselves, in their defense, have never seemed, to me, to relish).

Neither my father nor any of my uncles nor any of my friends, to the best of my recollection, ever had much enthusiasm about the police. Though my father had a very philosophical approach to them. I can recall that he hated — and this goes back to the late-1950s beginning with a specific case involving a certain young sociopath from our area — the concept of the high-speed chase. He believed the high-speed chase was ridiculous, dangerous, unnecessary, and abusive of the police prerogative to apprehend a criminal. There were probably exceptions that he would allow as necessary, but he was too familiar with their frequency and lack of genuine purpose, back then, to react with anything but disgust when they occurred. On the other hand, he did not like to see the police (or the military) treated as comic caricatures in television or films. I could analyze that latter attitude, but I need to get on with this.

I can remember, from my youth, and I believe that this was a fairly common sentiment, that seeing a police car coming along on our street would illicit the response: “What do they want?” Police were not liked, in general, by the common men I grew up around. They were welcomed only upon necessity: at the scene of a tragedy, a crash, a robbery, where their role was clearly defined.

In the town where I grew up, much went on that no one but the notorious old women of both sexes wanted the police to get involved with. Even the bad boy juveniles who “hung out” in a particular spot on the main drag, where some found them a nuisance, never had much trouble with the police. And as if by ritual, every second or third year, the police would raid one of the local bookies who otherwise operated in peace the other 364 days of the year from the backrooms of various barber shops.

In the town where I later attended high school there were no local police. In case of an emergency a state trooper would be dispatched from miles away. On Saturday nights a volunteer local constable would occasionally pull over a carload of drunk teenagers. No one I can recall had any love of the police and would avoid having anything at all to do with them.

I found this to be almost precisely the same attitude of my dormitory mates when I went off to college: police were to be avoided. If you ran into one, by being pulled over for speeding for instance, you made your way through the situation respectfully and without provoking further interest in your life.

So, in general, througout my life, I observed that common people had an aversion, often a dislike, for the police. Saw the police as necessary only for the purpose of arresting real criminals or for the role they played in real tragedies. And that they were respected when encountered (when they could not be avoided) because that was the best way to avoid provoking them.

Mencken’s characterization of the American “common man’s” attitude toward and relationship to the police is largely opposite of what I have observed.

As to the corruption and abusiveness of individual police officers, and even of entire departments, that is another question. So too is the proliferation of victimless criminal offenses at which the police power is directed. My comments pertain to the attitude of ordinary Americans toward police in general.

Link came from Beck.

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