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Thoughts on Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “Harrison Bergeron”

July 10th, 2017 by Edward Lopez

Originally Posted to Division of Labour (DOL) on April 16, 2007 at 03:39 PM in Culture (Links have been updated and typos corrected.)

Kurt Vonnegut passed away last week. I am no Vonnegut expert, although I’ve read some of the novels and found much of it disturbingly delicious and deliciously confounding. DOL readers are probably familiar with the short story, “Harrison Bergeron” (text here), which I first read as an undergrad in Eric Schansberg’s poverty and inequality class at Texas A&M. A futuristic dystopia, the story rivals Anthem and 1984 in its overtly favorable comparison of  liberalism (respect for the individual) over radical egalitarianism (reverence for the collective) as political philosophies. The opening paragraph sets the tone:

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

How was this equality achieved? Hilariously, by the use of mental and physical handicapping equipment that people were forced to wear. In the first scene, we go to the living room of George and Hazel Bergeron (parents of the protagonist) to witness the mundane existence of a perfectly average couple. George is naturally smarter and stronger than average, so the Handicapper-General has fitted George with a 47-pound bag of bird shot to hang around his neck, plus an ear implant set to blare thought disrupting noises at the moment George thinks above-average thoughts. The more profound the thought, the louder the burst.

This is the kind of world into which Vonnegut brings us. In this world, there is no individuality, no excellence, no merit. None of the things that libertarians believe to be inherent rights and predicates to prosperity. The ethical  backwardness shown to us in this world, and the story’s tragic and dreadful conclusion, suggest a negative commentary on egalitarianism. Hence the story is seen as a libertarian favorite, even among libertarians critical of Vonnegut more broadly (like this Cato blog entry).

A few observations that make me think the story is more than its appearance:

1. Of what use is the story to libertarians?

a. For one, the story expresses a logical-conclusion critique of egalitarianism. It’s not just folly (weighing down better than average ballerinas) but a trampling of individual rights that is anathema (seizing one’s thoughts) to the classical liberalism ideals that gird the American founding.
b. It also highlights some utilitarian costs of central planning. Much of the technology in the story (set in 2081) is 19th century technology. In the wake of the story’s climax, the Handicapper General executes the offenders with…..a shotgun (HT: Schansberg for that one).
c. For the hard core: constitutions fail to restrain the state from infringing on rights.
d. There are doubtless others that do not occur to me at the moment.

But the point of my post is that “Harrison Bergeron” is more than it seems, especially with regard to the libertarian theme. A few more observations on this.

2. In other aspects the technology is remarkable and subtle. For example, with the ear buzzing implants the state can literally read minds, in real time, and almost in anticipation of the individual’s thoughts. The state can also apparently control the weather, having taken “springtime” out of the month of April. (That sure beats our capitalist society’s control over the climate!) Vonnegut doesn’t mention the technology required to accomplish this degree of control. It’s left to back story in this incredibly lean tale. But it’s there.

3. I’ve always wondered why Vonnegut framed the setting, story, characters and dialogue in such blatant terms. It is a plain, almost in-your-face story, as though Vonnegut donned himself with creative weights to use language “as good as anybody else” could. By comparison, I’ve found his other works (Hocus Pocus, e.g.) to be cryptic, though perhaps no darker. Extending this point of comparison to Rand, her style in Anthem is more poetically subtle than in her other novels.

4. Vonnegut’s protagonist/hero is no libertarian. Unlike Anthem’s protagonist, who dreamed of becoming a scholar, Harrison Bergeron wants to be emperor. When he breaks out of prison, he violently storms into the television studio (maximum exposure) with the following:

“I am the Emperor!” cried Harrison. “Do you hear? I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once!” He stamped his foot and the studio shook. “Even as I stand here –” he bellowed, “crippled, hobbled, sickened – I am a greater ruler than any man who ever lived! Now watch me become what I can become!”

In a peek of how he might rule, Harrison bribes the musicians to play their best, promising royal favors.

“Play your best,” he told them, “and I’ll make you barons and dukes and earls.”

The secondary characters also have aspirations, though not of the individualist sort. Harrison’s mother, for example, says she wants to be Handicapper General.

“I think I’d make a good Handicapper General.”

“Good as anybody else,” said George.

“Who knows better’n I do what normal is?” said Hazel.

These characters aren’t independent achievers, they’re meddling tyrants. In all I have always found Vonnegut to be a dazzler, his tales a seeming refuge for readers with various types of self-deception in tow but with deep counter currents. In Vonnegut the profound is wrapped in the mundane. It’s genius. But I don’t think it’s at all libertarian.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.189, ch.7)

The most successful entrepreneurs know what they do well, they know the market and the opportunities within it, and they choose those activities that create the most value. This is true in economic as well as political markets.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.178, ch.7)

[W]hen the right elements come together at the right time and place and overwhelm the status quo, it is because special people make it happen. We call them political entrepreneurs.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.176. ch.7)

While we started this book with Danny Biasone saving basketball, we end it with Norman Borlaug saving a billion lives. These stories are not that different. Both faced vested interests, which were reinforced by popular beliefs that things should be a certain way—that is, until a better idea came along.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.174, ch.6)

Because there was a general belief that homeownership was a good thing, politicians found the public with open arms.... Everybody was winning—except Alfred Marshall, whose supply and demand curves were difficult to see through the haze of excitement at the time, and except Friedrich Hayek, whose competition as a discovery procedure was befuddled... In short, once politicians started getting credit for homeownership rates, the housing market was doomed.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.166, ch.6)

Everyone responded rationally to the incentives before them. In short, the rules that guided homeownership changed over time, which in turn changed the incentives of these actors. And bad things happened.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.153, ch.6)

They understood the economics. The ideas had already won in ... the regulatory agency itself. All that remained to be overcome were some vested interests and a handful of madmen in authority.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.146, ch.6)

If the idea for auctions of spectrum use rights had been part of the public debate since at least 1959, why didn’t the relevant institutions change sooner? What interests stood in the way?

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.121, ch.5)

When an academic scribbler comes up with a new idea, it has to resonate well with widely shared beliefs, which in turn must overcome the vested interests at the table. Many forces come together to explain political change, even though it may seem like coincidence of time and place.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.120, ch.5)

It’s the rules of the political game that deserve our focus, not politicians’ personalities or party affiliations.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.119, ch.5)

In short, ideas are a type of higher-order capital in society. Like a society that is poor in capital and therefore produces little consumer value, a society that is poor in ideas and institutions will have bad incentives and therefore few of the desirable outcomes that people want.

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