Freedom, Equality, and Individualism

There is a Kurt Vonnegut story, “Harrison Bergeron,” that presents a dystopian future of government-mandated equality. Everyone is compelled to avail themselves of precisely the same advantage in all arenas. As the Wikipedia page sums up the narrative fulcrum, the state issues and enforces “masks for those who are too beautiful, radios inside the ears of intelligent people, and heavy weights for the strong or athletic.”

During my right-wing days, I’d often cite the satire as proof of egalitarianism’s dark heart. I remember thinking, “A society of equals is a society of conformists, mediocrities, and sheep.” (I was your typical Nietzschian college student, I suppose.) But as I experienced more, saw more, read more, loved and lost more, I came to realize the fear was misdirected. If there’s any social arrangement that ensures mass docility or insipidity, it’s one that renders the overwhelming majority powerless or hopeless. It’s the one that ensures that the fear of punishment by the boss or the bureaucrat will always neutralize any risky or sustained indulgence in genuine self-realization or communal idiosyncrasy. It’s the one that codifies every truly soulful act of difference or distinction an act of inefficiency, irresponsibility, or criminality.

Likewise, I learned that if there’s any dispensation that allows for the enthusiastic and unafraid exercise of one’s talents, virtues, or charming eccentricities across the board, it is one where all are equally enabled and encouraged to explore to the utmost what it is that makes them human. And that this dispensation is incompatible with extreme disparities of wealth and (therefore) power, as well as with everyday routines dominated by extreme hierarchies of value assessment and taskmastering.

Anyway, this is all a long-winded and academic way of saying what George says to Billy in Easy Rider:

George: You know, this used to be a helluva good country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.

Billy: Huh. Man, everybody got chicken, that’s what happened, man. Hey, we can’t even get into like, uh, second-rate hotel, I mean, a second-rate motel. You dig? They think we’re gonna cut their throat or something, man. They’re scared, man.

George: Oh, they’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you represent to ’em.

Billy: Hey man. All we represent to them, man, is somebody needs a haircut.

George: Oh no. What you represent to them is freedom.

Billy: What the hell’s wrong with freedom, man? That’s what it’s all about.

George: Oh yeah, that’s right, that’s what it’s all about, all right. But talkin’ about it and bein’ it – that’s two different things. I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. ‘Course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free ’cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom, but they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.

Billy: Mmmm, well, that don’t make ’em runnin’ scared.

George: No, it makes ’em dangerous.

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