Politics & Policy

Inching toward ‘Harrison Bergeron’

Inequality warriors vs. the family and the individual

Economic inequality is an attractive issue for progressives, because it provides a permanent state of emergency — problems such as absolute poverty are in fact tractable, as the United States and other countries have shown, while the not-unrelated problem of economic growth is, though slippery, something that a great many nations with very different cultural characteristics have addressed, mainly with policies that are anathema to progressives.

But economic inequality — the fact that people will experience radically different economic outcomes, not always for reasons that strike us as fair — is never going away. Indeed, as societies grow wealthier and more integrated into the global economy, economic inequality tends to increase, a fact of life in such different countries as the United States, Sweden, Singapore, and India.

The enduring nature of economic inequality may be a political blessing for progressives — it provides a perennial source of discontent — but it is a problem, too, for one very important but under-appreciated reason: The main sources of economic inequality are not matters of public policy. They are instead rooted in the individual — including in the physical facts of the individual — and in the family, both of which have traditionally been considered outside of the public sphere. In a liberal society, some things are not political questions, but the Left, with its authoritarian mottos — “The personal is the political,” “If you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem,” etc. — is in its most fundamental assumptions the opposite of liberal: It is totalitarian.

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Occasionally, a progressives makes the political mistake of being too open about where those assumptions lead, as was the case this week with the Australian philosopher Adam Swift, who noted, correctly, that being read to by one’s parents is correlated with a greater degree of subsequent economic success than is attending an elite school. The inevitable conclusion is that loving, engaged families are an important source of inequality, that good families are a good that is distributed unequally with no regard for fairness, etc. Swift — not a satirist, despite the red-flag name — then performed the essential function of the modern philosopher, i.e. retrofitting a flimsy moral argument to preexisting progressive political preferences; in this case, that meant constructing a category of privileges — “familial relationship goods” — that can be finely subdivided between the legitimate and the illegitimate as political realities necessitate. He did not make much of a plausible case that the state should be prohibited from interfering with bedtime stories or other acts of parental investment, arguing instead only that he believes that the state should forgo doing so. On the other hand, he argues, widely resented benefits provided by supportive families, such as private schooling, should be prohibited, which just happens to coincide with the preferences of the Left at the moment.

“I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children, but I think they should have that thought occasionally,” he said.

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The Left is not generally hesitant about interfering with family life, when doing so is not too politically risky.

The Left is not generally hesitant about interfering with family life, when doing so is not too politically risky. Progressives are quite content to issue orders at the point of a bayonet about how and where you educate your children, and some of the more enthusiastic partisans among them desire to imprison parents for home-schooling their children or to have religious education declared an “extreme form of child abuse,” in the words of Richard Dawkins. President Barack Obama has endorsed the criminalization of certain kinds of counseling offered to homosexual or transsexual children, with the “Leelah’s law” faction eager to clap parents into prison if their first reaction upon learning that their son desires to undergo elective genital amputation is to get a second opinion. Each of those has a public-interest pretext, if an unpersuasive one; if we accept these as legitimate, then the only real argument against interrupting family life for the purpose of diminishing economic inequality is the political argument — that doing so is not, at this moment, popular.

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Other interventions enjoy wider support. Democrats are generally enthusiastic about inheritance taxes, not because they produce any meaningful federal revenue — they do not — but because inheritances are seen as unfair, as illegitimate drivers of economic inequality. In the American context, there is very little evidence to support that proposition, because inherited assets make up a very small part of the holdings of wealthy Americans — in fact, inherited assets make up a proportionally larger chunk of the wealth of the middle class. (This is, needless to say, complicated; if you inherit $100,000 when you are 22 and park it in a good stock portfolio, it will be a small part of your assets when you are 65, even if you never save another dime. But the fact is that the wealth of rich Americans comes overwhelmingly from non-inherited sources, such as salaries and business income.) There are more than a few progressives who endorse an inheritance tax rate of 100 percent, while Kevin Drum has argued for making Medicare a “senior creditor” on estates, which in many cases would amount to the same thing. (That you can be “in debt to” a government entitlement program in which enrollment is effectively mandatory is a very fine expression of the Left’s implicit/explicit totalitarianism.) If inequality is important enough to justify the confiscation of 100 percent of a given household’s wealth — one of the most intrusive acts a government can undertake — then it is important enough to justify all manner of domestic micromanagement. Bedtime stories are just the beginning of it.

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But the family is only one important source of inequality that has been traditionally beyond the grasp of politics. Another is individual endowment — the unfairest factor of all. We accept unfair congenital realities when they are in our faces: Nobody really believes that an uncoordinated 4-foot, 11-inch man could have been an NBA star if only he’d had the character to really apply himself. Nobody believes that in ten years I’ll be dancing Giselle with the Bolshoi, no matter how hard I work.

Brainpower is another matter entirely. The implicit conclusion of the work done by Charles Murray and others on the relationship between hereditary intelligence and socio-economic outcomes makes our elites uncomfortable, for two reasons: One is that if intelligence is mainly hereditary, then being really smart is no more a personal accomplishment than being really tall or being really pretty, and our elites are very invested in the notion that their place in society is a moral validation — that they deserve to rule. The second reason for their discomfort with the notion is that it means that certain kinds of poverty, and certain kinds of non-economic failure, are inevitable or close to inevitable, that they present us with problems that cannot be solved but only managed.

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Affirmative action has been one way of refusing to deal with that reality. This often takes on very amusing forms that reflect elite obsessions, i.e. demographic preferences in admissions at elite law schools, as though the candidates who narrowly miss the mark for Harvard and end up at Duke are life’s losers. The problems come mainly at the less rarefied levels. The New York Fire Department is in the process of abandoning its physical standards for some female recruits because some — though by no means all — women find it difficult or impossible to satisfy them. That men are in general more physically suited for occupations such as soldier and firefighter is a truth so obvious that it must not be spoken, which is why the word “fireman” has become verboten. Other big-city fire departments have gutted their own standards, often under legal duress. This will certainly endanger both rescuers and the rescued, just as the Marines’ abandonment of certain fitness standards will lead to a Marine Corps that is literally (literally, Mr. Vice President!) weaker than it needs to be. This is the result of intellectual corruption rooted in our adolescent national inability to cope with the fact that life is not fair.

Yes, we may overcome the defects of our character, but if we are driven by inequality, then the fact that there is something to overcome is an instance of unfairness in and of itself.

The end result of that intellectual corruption was considered by Kurt Vonnegut in his famous story “Harrison Bergeron” (which was made into a pretty good film, 2081), in which the fearsome Handicapper General imposes burdens on the strong, the intelligent, the beautiful, and other beneficiaries of unfair personal endowments in the name of fighting inequality. But where we are headed is in some ways worse than that: We may quietly and grudgingly accept that certain things such as raw intellectual ability are as much a biological reality as height or eye color, but we seek to evade the consequences of that reality in the retreat to other virtues, such as being hard-working, deferring immediate gratification for larger long-term benefits, etc. At the same time, we are learning that these purported virtues do not manifest out of the ether, that many aspects of our personalities are as hard-wired as g and lactose tolerance. Yes, we may overcome the defects of our character, but if we are driven by inequality, then the fact that there is something to overcome is an instance of unfairness in and of itself.

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We do not have a Handicapper General; we have a tax code, which is in some part intended to perform a similar function, though in reality its complexity and its burdens are simply another source of unfair advantage for the elites. Our philosophy and our politics have not yet caught up with our other realities, and, if your tendencies are progressive, you do not want them to catch up, really, because their catching up would put you in a very difficult position: Either embrace the openly totalitarian proposition that there is no aspect of human life — including bedtime stories — that is beyond the reach of politics, or accept the sources of the inequality that you purport to be committed to eradicating.

Which is to say: Progressives can abandon the inequality crusade, they can abandon such vestigial liberalism as clings to them, or they can abandon reality.

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.


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