How One Short Story Changed Someone from Left to Libertarian
I gave a talk on Milton and Rose Friedman today to an audience of about 60 law school professors and judges. It went well, by the way. One of my slides, labeled “Equality of Outcome,” was a quote from Milton and Rose Friedman’s Free to Choose:
The ethical issues [with fairness] involved are subtle and complex. They are not to be resolved by such simplistic formulas as “fair shares for all.” Indeed, if we took that seriously, youngsters with less musical skill should be given the greatest amount of musical training in order to compensate for their inherited disadvantage, and those with greater musical aptitude should be prevented from having access to good musical training; and similarly with all other categories of inherited personal qualities. That might be “fair” to the youngsters lacking in talent, but would it be “fair” to the talented, let alone to those who had to work to pay for training the youngsters lacking talent, or to the persons deprived of the benefits that might have come from the cultivation of the talents of the gifted?
At the bottom I added: “Cue: Harrison Bergeron” and told them the gist of the famous short story by Kurt Vonnegut.
An enthused law professor came up afterwards and told me that before he had read that story years ago, he was a “left-wing hippy.” But that story had a profound impact on him, getting him to question his fundamental views, and led him to becoming a libertarian.
Here’s Harrison Bergeron, for those of you who haven’t read it.
Sep 13 2021 at 12:40pm
I believe it. I find it a bit ironic that Kurt Vonnegut was himself a committed socialist.
Sep 13 2021 at 1:07pm
In the story, the equalizing measures were supported by constitutional amendments, meaning they had huge public support. Vonnegut wasn’t arguing against state regulations with the story, he was arguing against social conformity, pushed by individuals, media, and the state.
it’s not hard to jive Vonnegut’s socialist mindset with this story. One of the core tenants of socialism is “ From each according to his capacity, to each according to his works.” Socialism isn’t concerned with equalizing the abilities of all, but in allowing people to use those abilities to profit themselves (rather than someone else). Socialism is also concerned with allowing people to grow those abilities, without social or financial status hindering that progress. A Libertarian would argue that the student whose parents could afford a private teacher should receive the training, regardless of natural talent or not, and that the poor child should pursue something more immediately profitable and save up to someday take lessons.
Vonnegut even supported this understanding when he argued against his story being used in a law case trying to justify letting a rich school district dump more money into its schools. He believed that anyone should receive a good education, regardless of their parents’ wealth or status. (The law case was obviously more complex than this simple explanation, but this suffices for understanding Vonnegut’s stance.)
Sep 13 2021 at 2:43pm
I think it’s “to each, according to his needs.” I agree that in a philosophical sense, Socialism is not about equalizing abilities, but in a practical sense, it often leads to that. For instance, Mao judged successful academics as bourgeois, and wanted anyone to have access to higher learning, which nearly destroyed scientific progress under his regime. I have to admit to perhaps also being biased by exposure to Danish socialists, which have an egalitarian bent so strong there is a tinge of the Harrison Bergeron vision to it. See Law of the Jante, Schadenfreude.
I didn’t know about the court case. Thanks for sharing that.
Sep 13 2021 at 3:48pm
Great story!Hadn’t read it before. Not as entertaining, but read Helmut Schoeck’s Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior fir real stories almost as bizarre! Envy powers the obsession with equality and socialism.
Sep 14 2021 at 11:46am
Thanks for mentioning Schoeck’s book on Envy. I read it when I was very young–somewhere between about age 19 and age 22–and then again about 20 years ago, but I had forgotten that he had given real stories. I should take another look.
Sep 13 2021 at 8:21pm
Years ago, while working at a small state college in the Northwest, I team-taught a course in the PPE program with a philosophy professor. This professor’s approach was reliably “progressive,” anchored on what Arnold Kling characterizes as the “oppressor/oppressed axis” in his THE THREE LANGUAGES OF POLITICS. During one session, I used Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” as a vehicle to expose students to a different point of view. I wish I could claim the students were as enthused as David’s law professor.
Sep 13 2021 at 8:36pm
“The ethical issues [with fairness] involved are subtle and complex.”
They are not to be resolved by such simplistic formulas as ‘fair shares for all.'”
That all depends on what the speaker means by “fair shares for all.”
“Indeed, if we took that seriously, youngsters with less musical skill should be given the greatest amount of musical training in order to compensate for their inherited disadvantage, and those with greater musical aptitude should be prevented from having access to good musical training; and similarly with all other categories of inherited personal qualities.”
But why does that follow? I suggest that there are other interpretations of “fair shares for all” that lead to very different policy proposals and certainly not any that prevent youngsters with greater musical aptitude from accessing good musical training.
Sep 14 2021 at 11:47am
Indeed. And thanks for pointing this out. I was a little surprised and disappointed that Milton and Rose didn’t challenge that one particular use of the word “fair.”
Sep 13 2021 at 10:37pm
The story was also made into a movie in 1995, starring a young Sean Astin and Christopher Plummer. Pretty good. Obviously, they had to pad the original very short story to make a movie.
Harrison Bergeron (TV Movie 1995) – IMDb
Sep 14 2021 at 2:20am
I’ll bite! I like the story a lot… as a story. As politics, it’s just silly.
No one handicaps large swathes of people. No modern political party has ever done so, not even socialist ones. Not literally, nor even figuratively. Handicapping has happened historically in the form of oppression of one specific group (e.g. women being disallowed from going to school could be thought of as a handicap; or gay people being barred from polite society). But it’s not relevant to any of the political debates that happen in the modern west.
Sep 14 2021 at 3:48am
So progressive taxation has never happened in your world?
I’d say it is closer to the truth that there is not a single society on Earth that doesn’t have some form of handicap applied to those that are more successful in some way.
(progressive taxes, refusing Asians admittance to Harvard, African Americans accused of acting white or being Oreo, no super-hospitals catering exclusively to millionaires or billionaires, the list goes on)
Sep 14 2021 at 10:31am
Then, there’s this on math education:
Sep 14 2021 at 11:50am
Not true. The Chinese Communist Party did that in a big way in the 1960s with the Cultural Revolution.
Moreover it doesn’t take political parties to do it. Many colleges discriminate strongly against high-performing Asians.
There are more examples. I expect that some of our commenters will add them.
Sep 14 2021 at 2:42pm
In the US, many schools – public and private – are eliminating gifted programs, reducing the role of academic merit in their admissions criteria, and modifying curricula and degree requirements to be less challenging for less intelligent students in order yield more equal outcomes. They are, quite literally, intellectually handicapping smarter students for the sake of equalization, under the auspices of progressive politics.
Ironically, one could argue this isn’t handicapping is if one argued formal education wasn’t that important to cultivating ability in any case, which I find to be plausible, but the people doing the equalization certainly believe schooling matters a great deal.
Sep 14 2021 at 10:12pm
DH, Cultural Revolution: You don’t explain how that’s similar to handicapping, but I’ll try to follow. For example, during the CR, they closed schools, on the pretext that no-one should listen to teachers; they should listen to the wisdom of “the people”. That’s a little bit like handicapping, in that teachers who previously had the capacity to use their knowledge to make a living were deprived of their status and jobs. I think I’d probably agree that counts! You’re right, my claim was too wide, and I retract it.
David S, progressive taxation: Is definitely not the same thing as handicapping. Handicapping reduces your capacity to do labour (and live an enjoyable life). Taxation reduces your ability to accumulate capital. They just aren’t the same thing.
Mark Z, gifted programs: No, failing to provide a good is not the same as handicapping. That’s obvious, surely? Not-giving is not the same as taking away.
So, my claim was wrong. HG probably works as a critique of the cultural revolution. But that aside, I’m not sure that I see the relevance.
I’ll give another couple of examples of handicapping in real life: court procedures and political procedures. Defendants and prosecutors are handicapped by the requirements of procedural justice: each given equal opportunity to speak, forced to follow evidentiary rules, limited in their recourse to talents like eloquence. Politicians are forced to submit their plans to public scrutiny, only given one opportunity to win people over (no matter how much money they have), and constrained by constitutional checks and balances.
Within those limited spheres, handicapping is effective and helpful. The point is that we have our full faculties outside those spheres, which allows us to be smart, creative, and different when we dive in. The horror of the Vonnegut story is the idea of having equalizing procedural rules applied outside their proper sphere of application.
(I should say, in the spirit of provocation, that markets are also places full of rules (don’t use violence, honor your contracts, etc.) and the extension of the market beyond it’s proper bounds is also horrifying… I’m fairly sure someone’s written a book about that, too…)
Thomas Lee Hutcheson
Sep 14 2021 at 10:05am
I have trouble imagining what view of the world the “Harrison Bergson” would challenge anyone’s belief that a little less inequality in income and health outcomes both within and between countries would be a good thing.
Sep 14 2021 at 11:52am
I don’t understand your sentence. Is there a word, or are their words, missing?
By the way, it’s Bergeron.
Sep 19 2021 at 6:37am
“No one handicaps large swathes of people. No modern political party has ever done so, not even socialist ones.” that’s an absurd statement. it’s precisely what today’s GOP is doing (or is attempting to do.
Comments are closed.