Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron is a critique of overstated equality. As members of civil society we all agree upon the value of equal rights and equal opportunities. But when equality is taken too seriously, it can have counterproductive effects. All of us have experienced inequality of power, fortune and endowments in our personal and social lives. We accept it to be part of the game of life and adapt ourselves to the fact. In contrast, the political realm endeavors to offer equality of individual rights, liberties and entitlements. The eligibility to vote to elect our public representatives is one such right. The right of electoral franchise is equal to the extent that one person is allowed one vote and that each vote is weighted equally. It is telling that this fundamental observation of equality still does not make the United States an ideal model of democracy. Hence, there is disconnection between lofty principles and ground realities in both the short-story as well as real history. While outright mind and body control techniques are employed to achieve ‘equality’ in Vonnegut’s future world, the sophisticated means of political propaganda is the sustaining force for government welfare.
Although the picture depicted in Harrison Bergeron (HB) is one of fantasy, one could see elements of it contemporary politics and policy-making. Take say, the issue of government welfare. In the United States millions of disadvantaged people avail of social security, either in the form of Medicare, Medicaid or unemployment benefits. This system was devised and implemented by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the wake of the Great Depression of the 1930s. That the New Deal measures have endured for nearly a century speaks well of its merits. Firstly, the moral merit in providing social support for the disadvantaged is incontestable. Secondly, the method through which this is achieved is also deemed quite sound. Each month, a small fraction of the monthly salary of employees is subtracted toward the Social Security fund. This works much in the same way as premiums are collected for private insurance plans, albeit in a larger scale. More importantly, unlike private insurance premiums, the deducted amount is very nominal and hardly noticed by the employees. (Morgan, 2013) But over the years, Social Security and other welfare programs have lost sight of their vision. Repeated amendments and tinkering to these legislations have made equality a goal in itself indifferent to actual outcomes. While most Americans nominally assent to the idea of government subsidy, they do not seem to think through the range of beneficiaries and whether all categories are deserving of aid. People may split hairs about the exact operation of these subsidies, and some even show concern about the cost burden on the Treasury. But practically
“no one questions their premise–that it is right for government to make grants of taxpayer funds to individuals, groups, or businesses. If we don’t have programs to subsidize cellists or the makers of argyle socks, it’s not because the public thinks they would be wrong, destructive, or immoral. We just haven’t gotten around to them yet.” (Payne, 2005)
One should credit the state propaganda machinery for not bringing to debate such fundamental questions on the nature and scope of subsidies. In contemporary America the setting of the agenda for public discourse serves as a filter for propaganda. In short, it is propaganda through omission, as opposed to propaganda through misinformation. In contrast, a more direct form of control over people is shown in HB through the promotion of an hyper-idealistic view of equality. In the guise of upholding a cherished virtue, the government intrudes and manipulates the lives of citizens. This is reminiscent of the revelations of government spying and information theft exposed by Wikileaks. In this case spying is justified in the name of security and the threat of terrorism. In the world of HB, the same digressions are justified in the name of equality. But what is common to both cases is the fact that the power equation between citizens and the government are skewered toward the latter. Likewise, in both cases, the offered pretexts for the digressions are largely false. The multi-billion dollar Public Relations industry, whose clientele includes political parties and its leaders, do the necessary counter-spin to keep the public in ignorance of facts.