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, March 2022. Collegiate swimmer Lia Thomas wins the 500-yard freestyle at the women’s NCAA Division I swimming championship, becoming the first transgender athlete to win a title at college sports’ highest level. A biological male, Thomas began identifying as female in 2018 before starting hormone treatment a year later. First continuing to compete on the male swim team, he transferred to the female team in 2020. Towering above his female competitors, Thomas then began a dominant run, culminating in a decisive victory to win the now-infamous national title. And just as in “Harrison Bergeron,” the victory was largely accepted, with many lauding it as a capstone not only for transgender rights but also for American equality more broadly.
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. In fact, equality within the “state of nature” is a prerequisite within the anthropological theories of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. To quote Hobbes in his Leviathan:
If nature therefore have made men equal, that equality is to be acknowledged: or if nature have made men unequal, yet because men that think themselves equal will not enter into conditions of peace, but upon equal terms, such equality must be admitted. And therefore for the ninth law of nature, I put this: that every man acknowledge another for his equal by nature.
The fictional case of “Harrison Bergeron” and the real example of 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.
The liberal conception of equality argues that man is equal both in inherent and acquired dignity. Within this conflation lies the fatal error.
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.
Unequal hierarchies are natural and exist even from the moment of birth. Indeed, the human family is itself a hierarchy — parents properly providing the knowledge and security that young children lack on their own. This dependency within the family further shows that inequalities can in fact be good, even vital for flourishing. And this hierarchical structure is not unique to the private home; it plays out across society — from the family, to the local community, to the state itself.
Inequality is even a theological reality: the gift of grace is unequally distributed to men by God. As Ephesians 4:7 says, “But to every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the giving of Christ” (NRSV) — about which Saint Thomas Aquinas astutely comments, “Now what is given in measure, is not given to all equally. Hence all have not an equal grace.”
This is not to say men are unequal universally. Indeed there exists an inherent dignity that belongs to all. But this dignity is limited, certainly more constrained than the liberal conception of equality would concede. Such inherent dignity derives from that sole truth applicable to all men: that we are made in the imago Dei, the image and likeness of God. There are certain equalities, rights, and obligations that follow from this: the sanctity of human life, the existence of free will, the ability for one to pursue happiness in the good and the true.
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.
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 Lia Thomas case illustrates this dynamic overtly. Lia’s supposed liberty is achieved through a forced pseudo-equality among all swimmers. Yet because equality (in this case equality of gender) does not exist, it is imposed, forcefully handicapping opponents as a result. And this phenomenon is not unique to women’s sports. Rather, it is a perverse cycle that manifests itself across all aspects of liberal culture and politics.
Thus liberty and equality stand in necessary opposition to each other. Despite this, the push for equality will continue to take center stage in our liberty-driven politics and culture — with tyranny becoming an increasingly present consequence. Therefore, we ought to emphatically shun this flawed Enlightenment conception of equality, clarify the distinction between inherent and acquired dignity, and 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.