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Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism
and the Division of Labor

Murray N. Rothbard
New Areas of
Inequality and "Oppression"

But this does not mean that the struggle over egalitarianism is over. Far from it. On the contrary, after the New Left of the late 1960s and early 70s had been discredited by its bizarre turn to violence, it took the advice of its liberal elders and "joined the system." New Leftists launched a successful Gramscian "long march through the institutions," and by becoming lawyers and academics?particularly in the humanities, philosophy, and the "soft" social sciences?they have managed to acquire hegemony over our culture. Seeing themselves defeated and routed on the strictly economic front ( in contrast to the Old Left of the 1930s, Marxian economics and the labor theory of value was never the New Left's strong suit), the Left turned to the allegedly moral high ground of egalitarianism. And, as they did so, they turned increasingly to what was suggested in the last paragraph of my essay: de-emphasizing old-fashioned economic egalitarianism in favor of stamping out broader aspects of human variety. Older egalitarianism stressed making income or wealth equal; but, as Helmut Schoeck brilliantly realized, the logic of their argument was to stamp out in the name of "fairness," all instances of human diversity and therefore implicit or explicit superiority of some persons over others. In short, envy of the superiority of others is to be institutionalized, and all possible sources of such envy eradicated.

In his book on Envy, Helmut Schoeck analyzed a chilling dystopian novel by the British writer, L.P. Hartley. In his work, Facial Justice, published in 1960, Hartley, extrapolating from the attitudes he saw in British life after World War II, opens by noting that after the Third World War, "Justice had made great strides." Economic Justice, Social Justice and other forms of justice had been achieved, but there were still areas of life to conquer. In particular, Facial Justice had not yet been attained, since pretty girls had an unfair advantage over ugly ones. Hence, under the direction of the Ministry of Face Equality, all Alpha (pretty) girls and all Gamma (ugly) girls were forced to undergo operations at the "Equalization (Faces) Centre" so as all to attain Beta (pleasantly average) faces. [1]

Coincidentally, in 1961, Kurt Vonnegut published a pithy and even more bitterly satirical short story depicting a comprehensively egalitarian society, even more thoroughgoing than Hartley's. Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" begins:

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

The "handicapping" worked partly as follows:

Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn't think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty minutes or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains. [2]

This sort of egalitarian emphasis on non-economic inequalities has proliferated and intensified in the decades since these men penned their seemingly exaggerated Orwellian dystopias. In academic and literary circles "Political Correctness" is now enforced with an increasingly iron hand; and the key to being Politically Correct is never, ever, in any area, to make judgments of difference or superiority. Thus, we find that a Smith College handout from the Office of Student Affairs lists ten different kinds of "oppression" allegedly inflicted by making judgments about people. They include: "heterosexism," defined as "oppression" of those with non-heterosexual orientations, which include "not acknowledging their existence"; and "ableism," defined as oppression of the "differently abled" [known in less enlightened days as "disabled" or "handicapped"], by the "temporarily able." Particularly relevant to our two dystopian writers is "ageism," oppression of the young and the old by youngish and middle-aged adults, and "lookism" (or "looksism"), defined as the "construction of a standard of beauty/attractiveness." "Oppression" is also supposed to consist, not only of discriminating in some way against the unattractive, but even in noticing the difference. Perhaps the most chilling recently created category is "logism" or "logo-centric," the tyranny of the knowledgeable and articulate. A set of "feminist scholarship guidelines" sponsored by the state of New Jersey for its college campuses attacks knowledge and scientific inquiry per se as a male "rape of nature." It charges: "mind was male. Nature was female, and knowledge was created as an act of aggression?a passive nature had to be interrogated, unclothed, penetrated, and compelled by man to reveal her secrets." [3]

"Oppression" is of course broadly defined so as to indict the very existence of possible superiority?and therefore an occasion for envy?in any realm. The dominant literary theory of deconstructionism fiercely argues that there can be no standards to judge one literary "text" superior to another. At a recent conference, when one political science professor referred correctly to Czeslaw Milosz's book The Captive Mind as a "classic," another female professor declared that the very word classic "makes me feel oppressed." [4]The clear implication is that any reference to someone else's superior product may engender resentment and envy in the rank-and-file, and that catering to these "feelings of oppression" must be the central focus of scholarship and criticism.

The whole point of academia and other research institutions has always been an untrammelled search for truth. This ideal has now been challenged and superseded by catering to the "sensitive" feelings of the politically correct. This emphasis on subjective feelings rather than truth is evident in the current furor over the teaching of the distinguished Berkeley anthropologist, Vincent Sarich. Sarich's examination of genetic influences on racial differences in achievement was denounced by a fellow faculty member as "attempting to destroy the self-esteem of black students in the class." [5]

[1] See the discussion in Helmut Schoeck, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970), pp. 149-55. Schoeck's work was originally published in German in 1966 under the title Der Neid, and the English translation was first published in 1969.

[2] Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., "Harrison Bergeron" (1961), in Welcome to the Monkey House (New York: Dell, 1970), p.7.

[3] John Taylor, "Are you Politically Correct?" New York (January 21, 1991, p.38. Also see ibid., pp. 32-40: "Taking Offense," Newsweek (December 24, 1990), pp. 48-54.

[4] Newsweek, loc. cit., p. 53.

[5] Paul Selvin, "The Raging Bull of Berkeley," Science 251 (January 25, 1991): 369.

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