Liberty vs. equality: International magazine highlights timeless warnings of “Harrison Bergeron,” Vonnegut’s Prometheus-winning fable

By Michael Grossberg

Some Prometheus-winning fiction imagines a better, freer future for humanity, one that libertarian futurists yearn to see come true in some form.

Other Prometheus-winning fiction is more dystopian, offering cautionary warnings about totalitarian tendencies that their authors portray with hopes of preventing them from materializing.

“Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut’s now-classic 1961 short story, which falls into the latter category, satirically but seriously extrapolates the coercive, absurd and even monstrously inhuman possibilities of radical egalitarianism taken to extremes.

Read the Prometheus Blog Appreciation to appreciate why Vonnegut’s story deserved to be recognized by the Libertarian Futurist Society as the 2019 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner.

Overall and at least in theory, it’s a good thing to see outstanding fiction continue to resonate within the broader American and world culture – especially when it’s pro-liberty or anti-authoritarian sf/fantasy and has been recognized through the Prometheus awards.

Unfortunately, “Harrison Bergeron” is becoming all too timely.

Writing in the international magazine The Spectator World, Samuel D. Samson frames an essay about the contradictions between liberty and equality with several illuminating references to Vonnegut’s modern fable.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Samson’s conclusions or the specific news and issue that sparked such public debate, it’s intriguing to see how such timely and timeless fiction continues to define and inform popular culture.

Samson’s essay offers more historical and philosophical context for current events than most of today’s magazine or newspaper columnists.

“Such movements for equality are nothing new — after all, the rejection of hierarchy is a central component of the Enlightenment liberalism that underpins American politics,” Samson writes.

The article begins with a capsule summary and mini-review of Vonnegut’s tale:

“Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 short story “Harrison Bergeron” stands apart as one of dystopian literature’s most poignant works, making up for its brevity in striking social commentary. The tale is set in the United States, year 2081. The newly ratified 211th, 212th, and 213th constitutional amendments demand that all men be equalized — nobody is allowed to be stronger, smarter, or more beautiful than anybody else.

“It’s a prescient tale that has much to say about our current struggle over equality and liberty, especially in the debate about transgender athletes in women’s sports.

“To enforce this standard, the government creates the “Handicapper General,” an agency tasked with leveling any who possess excessive talents or advantages. Weights are hung around the necks of the athletic. Inhibitors are implanted in the minds of the smart. Hideous masks are placed on the attractive. Lengthy prison sentences await those who disobey the restrictions. Meanwhile, the less talented are allowed to subsist unimpeded, creating a population of mediocrity. With ambition and greatness curtailed, the ordinances are passively accepted, radical equality supposedly achieved.

Return to the real world….”

To its credit, the contrarian article challenges some aspects of today’s elite cultural assumptions in analyzing recent and ongoing controversies involving competitive sports. What makes the article worth quoting here, though, is the broader insights it shares about the inevitable tensions between liberty and equality – a theme and issue that both Vonnegut himself and libertarian futurists have long wrestled with.

Kurt Vonnegut in 1972 (Creative Commons license)

“The fictional case of “Harrison Bergeron” and the real example of (competitive swimmer) Lia Thomas both teach us, however, that a ready embrace of liberal equality is not necessarily wise. To see why, we need only look to Lia’s disadvantaged female opponents: handicapped in their ability to compete, prevented from the dream of winning a championship, runners-up to a biological man who even a few years ago would have been barred from competing against them. What was Lia’s liberation simultaneously became their subjugation,” Samson writes.

“Here the underlying issue comes to bear: liberty and equality stand in contradiction. This proves especially problematic in that both concepts lie at the heart of the American project. For just as liberty — the emancipation of man from the bonds of hierarchy and coercion — is the end of the liberal regime, equality is the means, the tool for leveling in the “state of nature.”

“Yet such equality, properly speaking, does not actually exist. Even a cursory observation of the population confirms this truth. Human beings are necessarily different — physically, intellectually, temperamentally, economically. To deny this fact would be to deny that Tom Brady is better at football than Donald Trump, to reject the vast discrepancy in IQ scores, and even to spurn the notion of diversity altogether.”

The essay is most interesting, and persuasive, in its insights that offer a way to reconcile – and lean against – the inevitable tensions between liberty and equality, and the dangerous tendencies of unchecked and misconstrued “equality” towards tyranny (as well as away from respecting and nurturing the range and diversity of personal excellence and individual achievement that improves society and ultimately benefits all of us.)

“…This differs, however, from acquired dignity: those variable traits belonging to man by gift: physical superiority, intellectual tact, fruits of labor, even Divine grace. These inequalities, along with the hierarchies they create, are indissoluble aspects of human existence. Still, inequality need not lead to abuse. Finding oneself ascendant in a hierarchy is not license to take advantage of others or act selfishly. On the contrary, one with such blessings likewise takes on a greater responsibility to use those gifts in charity to serve the common good,” Samson writes (and wisely, in my opinion.)

“The liberal conception of equality, however, argues that man is equal both in inherent and acquired dignity. Within this conflation lies the fatal error, one which undermines true liberty as a consequence. Thus the tension plays out: Liberal anthropology calls for man’s liberation from hierarchy and coercion, of which equality is the key component. Even so the necessary inequality of acquired dignity makes this impossible, meaning any supposed equality can only ever be simulated through imposition. What necessarily emerges as consequence is a forceful leveling — a tyranny that comes in the name of freedom. But as Harrison Bergeron shows, this tyranny merely yields subjugation and mediocrity.”

The Spectator essay, very much worth reading in full, ends with an eloquent plea and apt reference to “Harrison Bergeron.”

*… recognize that our variable gifts and hierarchies are not only natural but are also opportunities for charity – sources of strength to complement others and build a healthier, truly free society.

If we do not, the Handicapper General will no doubt come to level us all.”


P.S. By the way, here are answers to two lingering questions you might have from reading the opening paragraphs of this Prometheus blog post:

First, what are some good examples of Prometheus-winning fiction that imagines a better, freer future for humanity?

Among the best novels, in my opinion, are James Hogan’s Voyage from Yesteryear, J. Neil Schulman’s Alongside Night, Barry B. Longyear’s The Hook, Sarah Hoyt’s Darkship Thieves, F. Paul Wilson’s An Enemy of the State, L. Neil Smith’s The Probability Broach and Travis Corcoran’s The Powers of the Earth – all of which portray, in part, functioning and fully free societies in the future.

Second, what are some “good” examples of very bad futures imagined in Prometheus-winning fiction that leans towards dystopian visions of future tyranny?
Among the best, besides “Harrison Bergeron,” are Orwell’s novels Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, Ira Levin’s novel This Perfect Day, Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 and Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange.

Both Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, by the way, are among the Prometheus-winning novels that fall into both categories, offering intriguing and dramatic contrasts between different types of free and unfree societies.

* Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners, finalists and nominees – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to the full set of published appreciation-reviews of past winners.

* Watch the videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies, Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital, and in some ways even more powerful than politics in the long run, by sparking innovation, better ideas, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights and differences.

Through recognizing the literature of liberty and the many different but complementary visions of a free future via the Prometheus Awards, the LFS hopes to help spread better visions of the future that help humanity overcome tyranny, slavery and war and achieve universal liberty and human rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

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Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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