Last year, I had the temerity to ask Santa Claus for the gift of public policy sanity. He must have had me on his super naughty list, because I didn’t even get coal in my stocking. This year all I want, besides the deed to a platinum mine, is for all Americans to know Harrison Bergeron. I know that is literally impossible because Harrison will die in 2081. He was, you see, a fictional character in a 1961 Kurt Vonnegut short story named for him.
That 2021 is smack dab in the middle 60 years between publication of the story and its dystopian future setting is just a happy coincidence. The story’s real relevance lay in how it reveals the impossibility of “equity,” of mandating equal outcomes for all.
In Vonnegut’s America of 2081, over 200 constitutional amendments have made strict equity the law of the land. Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, oversees the bureaucracy responsible for ensuring that no American is more beautiful, intelligent, or talented than any other by enforcing the wearing of masks, sandbags, brain zappers, and sundry other devices designed to reduce the capabilities of the more fortunate, so that no one “would feel like something the cat drug in.”
While most Americans had somehow come to accept the new equity regime, 7-foot tall teen genius Harrison Bergeron did not. To bring this Thor-like human down to the least common denominator required huge handicaps that chafed Harrison’s body and brain. Imprisoned for plotting to overthrow the government, Harrison broke loose his chains, shed his handicaps, invaded a televised ballet, declared himself Emperor, and commenced dancing with his Empress, the ballerina who proved herself the bravest, strongest, and most beautiful of the bunch.
Just as the reader comes to suspect that Bergeron will successfully rule over America’s handicapped herd of sheeple, though, Handicapper General Glampers enters the studio with a ten-gauge shotgun, an unequalizer if there ever was one. Two simple pulls of the trigger, and Harrison and his ballerina Empress “were dead before they hit the floor.”
No revolution followed. Although they watched it all on television, Bergeron’s own parents could not moments later even remember their son’s televised murder, only recalling of the ballet program, “That one was a doozy.” Their stupidity reminds one of Idiocracy, while Glampers’ gun becomes a metaphor for the state’s monopoly on the “legitimate” use of violence as well as the qualified immunity protecting politicians and bureaucrats from even the deadliest consequences of their actions.
The story of Harrison Bergeron should remind Americans that individuals can never achieve equity if the state is powerful enough to enforce equality of outcomes. Like the pigs in Animal Farm, the enforcers will always remain “more equal” than the others. Instead of redistributing wealth, or reducing it as in Glampers’ case, Americans should seek to redistribute and reduce political power. That would be the greatest gift they could give themselves and their posterity because the only ill-gotten booty comes from government-enabled rent extraction, not from working harder and smarter than others in a competitive, which is to say a fair and socially just, environment.