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In the town of Sherwood, Ore., Dale Smith’s barber chair sits empty. Dale, an 82-year-old barber whose shop was recently shut down by Oregon’s Board of Cosmetology, had been operating with an expired license. Hundreds of customers had occupied Dale’s chair since he earned his license 54 years ago, but now Dale must pass a written examination and cutting demonstration.
One could only assume if Dale’s clients were unhappy with their dos or found his $8 cuts overpriced, or a high number of missing ears or nicked scalps were seen around town, he’d have been out of business decades before the visit from the barber police. He’s surely not the only entrepreneur with scissors in Oregon, and there’s no law (yet) requiring haircuts.
Stories about people like Dale, who work to earn a decent living while snipping hair or cutting through ever-growing strands of red tape under the watchful eye of government officials, are reminiscent in some ways of the fictional plight of Harrison Bergeron. Bergeron is the central character in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 short story, which opens with this stark description:
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 … Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.
In Vonnegut’s dystopian society, people who were judged to have more desirable qualities, such as beauty, intelligence or athletic ability, were forced to wear absurd contraptions, such as weights, noisy earphones, glasses, masks, etc., to put them on a level playing field with those lacking the traits or with disabilities. In an original way, Vonnegut’s story illustrates the simple analogy that a falling tide lowers all boats.
Throughout the tale lies the subtle reality that the government must have been excluded from its own mandates in order to evaluate citizens’ attributes, design “handicaps” and enforce their use. This imagined world, then, rather than creating equality for “everybody,” resulted in a division into two groups – those Vonnegut labeled “nobody” in the paragraph above, and the government (everybody else).
Of course, barber-licensing rules weren’t created by a Handicapper General to reduce Dale’s barbering prowess to an equal level with everyone else (although Dale could probably still wield a better cut blindfolded and with one arm tied behind his back than the young barbers he’d be tested alongside). The Cosmetology Board is likely simply working to ensure that all citizens are equally protected from unflattering or dangerous haircuts – and, most importantly, that all barbers equally pay the licensing fees.
The famous 1972 cartoon, “Cowboy after OSHA,” illustrated an imaginary getup for a horse and rider created by over-zealous government workplace safety regulators. The pair, barely visible underneath numerous ridiculous devices like steel-toed stirrups, safety net, roll bar, and “4 wheels to keep horse upright in case he slips,” created quite a comical image. In the book, “Basic Guide to System Safety,” author Jeffrey W. Vincoli describes the cartoon as “a satirical view of OSHA compliance extremes. Essentially, the cartoon drawing demonstrated that the risks to the cowboy on horseback can be guarded and controlled to the point where even simple movement would be impossible.” Although designed for safety instead of equality, the resulting cowboy in costume, barely able to move, is eerily similar in many ways to the shackled Harrison Bergeron.
Numerous and complex government regulations, mandates and complicated tax codes, whether formulated in the name of equality or safety or for the “good and welfare,” etc., have become millstones around the necks of today’s real-life Harrison Bergerons: America’s self-supporting citizens and small businesses.
The productive, self-reliant “nobodies” of today are further encumbered with the responsibility of funding social programs and wealth-redistribution schemes. Imagine that cowboy and rider struggling in such a debilitating getup to complete their chores and then at the end of the day, handing over a substantial percentage of hard-earned wages to Uncle Sam.
The recipients of Uncle Sam’s pet projects and special advantages, targeted tax breaks and economic stimuli intended to promote particular industries or groups of workers or citizens comprise an additional group elevated from the ranks of the “nobodies.” Earmarks and waivers further add to the numbers of these “somebodies.” Cronies of the administration, exempt from the “unceasing vigilance” of a Handicapper General, become instead its primary beneficiaries and some, its partners.
In the name of “reason, dignity and ethics,” a blind eye is turned to those who openly break the laws, such as “people caught up in the broken immigration system.” And if some other “somebodies” are perceived as somehow unfairly treated even with all these contrivances, empathetic judges ensure that Lady Justice takes off her blindfold and dons spectacles that filter the law through lenses of political correctness.
Back to Vonnegut’s story – his simple sentence in that opening paragraph deserves a second look: “They weren’t only equal before God and the law.”
In Vonnegut’s world, the government’s power to define, assess and enforce equality required its placement not just apart from everyone else, but above God and outside its own laws. Government essentially became God.
Our own government, as it inches itself outside the restraints of the Constitution, dares to play God. Dissatisfied with the design of God’s creation, government intervenes beyond its role of providing equal protection and justice for all its citizens. It seeks to replace the beauty of natural diversity with a calculated and enforced equation. It creates and subsidizes favorites and controls the field with its own commandments. It defies God by assuming the role of brother’s keeper. It meddles by fixing multiple fair and productive races, generated by “spontaneous order,” into one ineffective competition of “organized chaos.”
In such a race, out of the starting gate it may appear that the government and its picks are the winners. Lessons from history confirm, however, that at the finish line the entire country will find itself the loser.
Cindy Simpson is a writer based in Louisville, Ky. Her work has also appeared at American Thinker and The Pearcey Report.