Murray Rothbard’s words here are as present and relevant as they were when they were written 41 years ago, and speak volumes on human nature, the future, and the compelling argument that egalitarianism will forever fail to provide workable legal doctrine:
The struggle over egalitarianism is [not] 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 . . . 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.
. . .
[Today,] “oppression” is 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.” 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.”
II. Group Quotas
Indeed, one radical change since the writing of this essay has been the rapid and accelerating transformation of old-fashioned egalitarianism, which wanted to make every individual equal, into group-egalitarianism on behalf of groups that are officially designated as “oppressed.” In employment, positions, and status generally, oppressed groups are supposed to be guaranteed their quotal share of the well-paid or prestigious positions. (No one seems to be agitating for quotal representation in the ranks of ditch diggers.) I first noticed this trend in a paper written one year after the present essay at a symposium on The Nature and Consequences of Egalitarian Ideology.
There I reacted strongly to the quotal representation for designated groups insisted upon by the McGovern movement at the 1972 Democratic Convention. These victorious Democrats insisted that groups such as women, youth, blacks and Chicanos had fallen below their quotal proportion of the population as elected delegates to previous conventions; this had to be rectified by the Democratic Party overriding the choices of their members and insisting upon due quotal representation of these allegedly oppressed groups. I noted the particular idiocy of the claim that youths aged 18–25 had been grievously “under-represented” in the past, and indulged in what would now be called a “politically inappropriate” reductio ad absurdum by suggesting an immediate correction to the heinous and chronic underrepresentation of five-year-old “men and women.”[vi]
And yet, only two years before that convention, another form of quotal appeal had met with proper scorn and ridicule from left-liberals. When one of President Nixon’s failed Supreme Court nominees was derided as being “mediocre,” Senator Roman Hruska (R., Neb.) wondered why the mediocre folk of America did not deserve “representation” on the highest Court. Liberal critics mockingly charged the Senator with engaging in special pleading. The self-same charge, levelled against denouncers of “logism” would drive such critics from public life. But times, and standards of political correctness, have changed.
It is difficult, indeed, to parody or satirize a movement which seems to be a living self-parody, and which can bring about such deplorable results. Thus, two eminent American historians, Bernard Bailyn and Stephan Thernstrom, were literally forced to abandon their course at Harvard on the history of American race relations, because of absurd charges of “racism” levelled by a few students, charges that were treated with utmost seriousness by everyone concerned. Of particular interest here was the charge against Bailyn’s course on race relations in the colonial era.
The student “grievance” against Bailyn is that he had read from the diary of a southern planter without giving “equal time” to the memoirs of a slave. To the complainants, this practice clearly amounted to a “covert defense of slavery.” Bailyn had patiently explained during the offending lecture that no diaries, journals or letters by slaves in that era had ever been found. But to these students, Bailyn had clearly failed to understand the problem: “Since it was impossible to give equal representation to the slaves, Bailyn ought to have dispensed with the planter’s diary altogether.”
Spokesmen for group quotas in behalf of the “oppressed” (labelled for public relations purposes with the positive-sounding phrase “affirmative action”) generally claim that a quota system is the furthest thing from their minds: that all they want is positive action to increase representation of the favored groups. They are either being flagrantly disingenuous or else fail to understand elementary arithmetic. If oppressed group X is to have its “representation” increased from, say, 8 to 20 percent, then some group or combination of groups is going to have their total representation reduced by 12 percent. The hidden, or sometimes not-so-hidden, agenda, of course, is that the quotal declines are supposed to occur in the ranks of designated oppressor groups, who presumably deserve their fate.
III. Who Are the “Oppressed”?
In this regime of group egalitarianism, it becomes particularly important to take one’s place in the ranks of the oppressed rather than the oppressors. Who, then, are the oppressed? It is difficult to determine, since new groups of oppressed are being discovered all the time. One almost longs for the good old days of classic Marxism, when there was only one “oppressed class” – the proletariat – and one or at most a very few classes of oppressors: the capitalists or bourgeois, plus sometimes the “feudal landlords” or perhaps the petit bourgeoisie.
But now, as the ranks of the oppressed and therefore the groups specially privileged by society and the State keep multiplying, and the ranks of the oppressors keep dwindling, the problem of income and wealth egalitarianism reappears and is redoubled. For more and greater varieties of groups are continually being added to the parasitic burden weighing upon an ever-dwindling supply of oppressors. And since it is obviously worth everyone’s while to leave the ranks of the oppressors and move over to the oppressed, pressure groups will increasingly succeed in doing so – so long as this dysfunctional ideology continues to flourish. Specifically, achieving the label of officially oppressed entitles one to share in an endless flow of benefits – in money, status, and prestige – from the hapless oppressors, who are made to feel guilty forevermore, even as they are forced to sustain and expand the endless flow. It is not surprising that attaining oppressed status takes a great deal of pressure and organization. As Joseph Sobran wittily puts it, “it takes a lot of clout to be a victim.” Eventually, if trends continue the result must be the twin death of parasite and host alike, and an end to any flourishing economy or civilization.
There are virtually an infinite number of groups or “classes” in society: the class of people named Smith, the class of men over 6 feet tall, the class of bald people, and so on. Which of these groups may find themselves among the “oppressed”? Who knows? It is easy to invent a new oppressed group. I might come up with a study, for example, demonstrating that the class of people named “Doe” have an average income or wealth or status lower than that of other names. I could then coin a hypothesis that people named Doe have been discriminated against because their names “John Doe” and “Jane Doe” have been “stereotyped” as associated with faceless anonymity and, presto, we have one more group who is able to leave the burdened ranks of the oppressors and join the happy ranks of the oppressed.
A political theorist friend of mine thought he could coin a satiric oppressed group: short people, who suffer from “heightism.” I informed him that he was seriously anticipated two decades ago, again demonstrating the impossibility of parodying the current ideology. I noted in an article almost twenty years old, written shortly after this essay, that Professor Saul D. Feldman, a sociologist at Case-Western Reserve, and himself a distinguished short, had at last brought science to bear on the age-old oppression of the shorts by the talls. Feldman reported that out of recent University of Pittsburgh graduating seniors, those 6’2″ and taller received an average starting salary 12.4 percent higher than graduates under 6 feet, and that a marketing professor at Eastern Michigan University had quizzed 140 business recruiters about their preferences between two hypothetical, equally qualified applicants for the job of salesman. One of the hypothetical salesmen was to be 6’1″, the other 5’5″. The recruiters answered as follows: 27 percent expressed the politically correct no preference; one percent would hire the short man; and no less than 72 percent would hire the tallie.
In addition to this clear-cut oppression of talls over shorts, Feldman pointed out that women notoriously prefer tall over short men. He might have pointed out, too, that Alan Ladd could only play the romantic lead in movies produced by bigoted Hollywood moguls by standing on a hidden box, and that even the great character actor Sydney Greenstreet was invariably shot upward from a low-placed camera to make him appear much taller than he was. (The Hollywood studio heads were generally short themselves, but were betraying their short comrades by pandering to the pro-tall culture.) Feldman also perceptively pointed to the antishort prejudice that pervades our language: in such phrases as people being “short-sighted, short-changed, short-circuited, and short in cash.” He added that among the two major party candidates for president, the taller is almost invariably elected.
I went on in my article to call for a short liberation movement to end short oppression, and asked, where are the short corporation leaders, the short bankers, the short senators and presidents? I asked for short pride, short institutes, short history courses, short quotas everywhere, and for shorts to stop internalizing the age-old propaganda of our tall culture that shorts are genetically or culturally inferior. (Look at Napoleon!) Short people, arise! You have nothing to lose but your elevator shoes. I ended by assuring the tallies that we were not anti-tall, and that we welcome progressive, guilt-ridden talls as pro-short sympathizers and auxiliaries in our movement. If my own consciousness had been sufficiently raised at the time, I would have of course added a demand that the talls compensate the shorts for umpteen thousand years of tall tyranny.
IV. The Romantics and Primitivism
Turning from the topic of the oppressed, my own view of the Romantics, certainly jaundiced twenty years ago, is far more hostile today. For I have learned from such sources as Leszek Kolakowski and particularly the great literary critic M.H. Abrams, of the devotion of the Romantics, Hegelians, and of Marxism to what might be called “reabsorption theology.” This view stemmed from the third-century Egyptian Platonist, Plotinus, seeping into Christian Platonism and from then on constituting a heretical and mystical underground in Western thought.
Briefly, these thinkers saw Creation not as a wonderfully benevolent overflow of God’s goodness, but as an essentially evil act that sundered the blessed pre-Creation unity of the collective entities God, Man, and Nature, bringing about tragic and inevitable “alienation” in Man. However, Creation, the outgrowth of God’s deficiencies, is redeemable in one sense: History is an inevitable “dialectical” process by which pre-Creation gives rise to its opposite, the current world. But eventually history is destined to end in a mighty “reabsorption” of these three collective entities, though at a much higher level of development for both God and Man.
In addition to other problems with this view, the contrast with orthodox Christianity should be clear. Whereas in Christianity, the individual person is made in God’s image and the salvation of each individual is of supreme importance, the allegedly benevolent reabsorptionist escape from metaphysical alienation occurs only at the end of history and only for the collective species Man, each individual disappearing into the species-organism.
. . . .
Tom Woods’ book How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, which I finished just yesterday, develops the immediate criticism of Romanticism and the devolution of western art that has followed as a result. When we turned from God as Nietzsche prophesied, and began to sublimate our emotional states as the most relevant artistic theme, art began to become less beautiful, less relevant, and less thematic. We left The Garden of Eden that faces God to create our own, creating its foundation on an impossible humanity. Humanity is flawed, unequal, and fallen. It can never be that humans are equal. We cannot re-define what humanity is or can be, and the minute we do, as C. S. Lewis noted in The Abolition of Man, we become self-defeatist and destroy what is driving us to begin with – the objective standards which every human mind is inescapably imbued with. There is no standard but God’s, and it is not severable in part; there is no way that God’s humanity can be changed into humans’ humanity. Yet still, we try, with our visions of government run by perfect men and resulting in perfect men. It is apparent to me today that we will never learn…