Harvard – Elitist Egalitarianism?

Recently, Professor Rakesh Khurana, the Dean of Harvard College and a teacher of business and sociology, came out against what he calls “Capitalism.” The system he described in his Class Day speech to 2019 Harvard College graduates is a regressive hierarchy of unjust privilege which channels success to those who were “to the manor born.”

As a graduate of Harvard College, I feel no qualms in contesting his version of reality. After all, in my day at Harvard, we were taught to question and to think for ourselves.

If Dean Khurana is correct, then any thought of a “moral” capitalism is a foolish whim. What is needed for social justice is only enforced equality of money, power, status and, perhaps, happiness. No one deserves to be different, especially if the difference seems to be “better” than the norm. Dean Khurana is not the first to seek leveling in society, culture, politics and the economy. There has been a school in the West advocating regimented sameness for several centuries now.

Such terminal equivalence was the hue and cry of Gracchus Babeuf in the French Revolution. He proclaimed: “Society must be made to operate in such a way that it eradicates once and for all the desire of a man to become richer, or wiser, or more powerful than others.”

The manifesto of his movement – The Conspiracy of Equals – demanded: “Let there no longer be any difference between people than that of age and sex. … Since all have the same faculties and the same needs, let there then be for them but one education, but one nourishment. They are satisfied with one sun and one air for all: why then would the same portion and the same quality of food not suffice for each of them? … Open your eyes and your hearts to the fullness of happiness: recognize and proclaim with us the REPUBLIC OF EQUALS.

The Japanese have a saying: “The nail which sticks up is pounded down.”

In this vein of social analysis, Dean Khurana proposed to “interrogate” in his remarks what it means to deserve something, whether being at Harvard or being successful in life. The “capitalist ethos,” according to Mr. Khurana, tells us that “We deserve to win because of our skill, our hard work and our contributions.” In Monopoly, the board game which Mr. Khurana called synonymous with the capitalist system, it’s the roll of the dice that determines “whether we land on Park Place or land in jail.”

Monopoly is like real life, he concluded, which is often determined by factors beyond our control—above all by “those privileges sociologists call ‘structural inequities.’”

When I was at Harvard, the “life is only a game” theory was used by Professor Timothy Leary as justification for taking LSD and dropping out into chemically induced blissfulness.

Dean Khurana proposed we should stop thinking in terms of individual effort, merit and moral character. He said it’s time to stop using words like “deserve” and “deserving” because they don’t account for the “systemic inequities” that play such large roles in our accomplishments. Harvard, he announced, has made progress in “acknowledging and naming the privilege” that makes the language of “deserving” so “insidious.”

Khurana also urged listeners to junk the myth of the self-made person. He told his audience to focus instead on recognizing the “increasingly dynastic transmission of political, social and economic privilege governing” life in the U.S. and to work toward a sustainable, equitable society.

So, asking people to try, to learn, to work, to stretch themselves when in discomfort, to put up with others, to listen to the better angels of their natures, to be responsible and thus energize their minds, hearts and souls to do better is “insidious?” Hogwash.

Aristotle proposed that each of us individually should set before ourselves the goal or end in life of “eudemonia” – or happy flourishing. No one, no dean of a college, no social order, can give this state to us. It is up to us to give it to ourselves. That is why a concept such as “virtue,” which is personal, only comes into play as a guide to living well.

In the Greek, “eudemonia” breaks down into two ideas – “eu” or good and “daimon” or spirit. The observation about eudemonia is that we need a spirit guiding us which knows the good when that spirit is personal to us and not a collective mission imposed on us for the good of others, using us as a means for their ends.

Khurana then accused capitalism of fostering a “zero-sum” mentality. In what reality is he living? I know that as a tenured professor, he can’t be fired and his salary is secure. He lives off rent extraction secured by Harvard’s reputation in the marketplace for higher education. That reputation gives Harvard structured power and Mr. Khurana is a beneficiary of that power. Under the law of the land according to his contract of employment, he has a “zero-sum” position vis-à-vis the rest of us.

But why is he in such a prestigious position, authorized to instruct students on the “correct” way of thinking about capitalism and life? Does he, himself, deserve to be Dean of Harvard College? Apparently, some at Harvard think so.

How in a market reality, though, can a seller impose upon a buyer the purchase of a good or service? Both need to benefit according to their respective utility curves from the exchange. Economics and growth depend on mutuality, on interdependency, as Adam Smith realized. Harvard profits because students and their parents believe it provides utility leading towards success in life and pay the tuition charged.

What if Dean Khurana were to be paid by piecework, a cash fee from each student who decided to attend one of his classes? Would he not then quickly come to see some reciprocity of benefit, some ethical force at work in capitalism?

Will sellers try to cheat? Will buyers seek to push the offered price down or buy the same good elsewhere for a lower price? Will owners try to hire workers at a lower wage with fewer benefits? Will workers take advantage of employers when possible? Are people, as a rule, prone to ignoring their moral sense and abusing power? Yes.

Lord Acton was not the only one to observe this when he affirmed that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That is why we have legislated constitutional restraints on political leaders and protect private property from exploitation from others by the rules of law and the maxims of equity.

The only way to realize Khurana’s heaven on earth of absolute equality is to give some power over others to make them the same in mind, heart, soul, will, intelligence, aesthetic preferences, effort and money. Those with the power will not find the concept of “deserving” to be insidious at all. They will specify what it means to be deserving and then the rest of us must obey their tastes. That would be the structured inequality needed to ensure structured equality. Seems incoherent to me.

The idea of enforced equality ended up with Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge followers. Seeking Babeuf’s utopia, as championed by French educated Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Sampan, everyone in Cambodia who was not “hammered” to death one way or another was pounded down under the Khmer Rouge revolutionary regime, even their own cadres who fell out of line.