Over at Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok discusses an unusual Department of Justice mandate directed at the University of California, Berkeley. A summary: Berkeley posts many faculty lectures and classroom materials online, so they can be available to the public free of charge. The Department of Justice asserts that the University is violating the Americans With Disabilities Act because these materials are not sufficiently accessible to disabled people—for example, that some of the videos lack captions. (The DOJ does not allege that UC Berkeley is failing to adequately serve its enrolled disabled students—the issue only applies to online courses that are available for free to the public at large). UC Berkeley says that it may be too costly to comply with this mandate, and that it is considering removing its online materials altogether.
Tabarrok points out that the DOJ efforts may end up being counterproductive: “It would likely be much cheaper to help each disabled student on an individual basis than requiring all the material to be rewritten, re-formatted and reprogrammed … raising the costs of online education makes it more difficult for anyone to access educational materials including the disabled.”
This conflict between the DOJ’s radical egalitarianism and UC Berkeley’s technocratic calculation might seem trivial, but it actually gets at broader trends that stand to shape our politics for many years to come. Consider this remarkably prescient passage from TAI cofounder Francis Fukuyama’s often-cited but rarely-read-to-completion work, The End of History and the Last Man (1992):
Despite the present receding of the old economic class issue on the part of the Left, it is not clear that there will be any end to new and potentially more radical challenges to liberal democracy based on other forms of inequality. Already, forms of inequality such as racism, sexism, and homophobia have displaced the traditional class issue for the Left on contemporary American college campuses. Once the principle of equal recognition of each person’s human dignity—the satisfaction of their isothymia—is established, there is no guarantee that people will continue to accept the existence of natural or necessary residual forms of inequality. The fact that nature distributes capabilities unequally is not particularly just. Just because the present generation accepts this kind of inequality as either natural or necessary does not mean that it will be accepted as such in the future. A political movement may one day revive Aristophanes’ plan in the Assembly of Women to force handsome boys to marry ugly women and vice versa, or the future may turn up new technologies for mastering this original injustice on the part of nature and redistributing the good things of nature like beauty or intelligence in a “fairer” way.
Consider, for example, what has happened in our treatment of the handicapped. It used to be that people felt the handicapped had been dealt a bad hand by nature, much as if they had been born short or cross-eyed, and would simply have to live with their disability. Contemporary American society, however, has sought to remedy not only the physical handicap, but the injury to dignity as well. The way of helping the handicapped that was actually chosen by many government agencies and universities was in many respects much more economically costly than it might have been. Instead of providing the handicapped with special transportation services, many municipalities changed all public buses to make them accessible to the handicapped. Instead of providing discreet entrances to public buildings for wheelchairs, they mandated ramps at the front door. This expense and effort was undertaken not so much to ease the physical discomfort of the handicapped, since there were cheaper ways of doing this, but to avoid affronts to their dignity. It was their thymos that was to be protected, by overcoming nature and demonstrating that a handicapped person could take a bus or enter the front door of the building as well as anyone else.
He continues: “The passion for equal recognition—isothymia—does not necessarily diminish with the achievement of greater de facto equality and material abundance, but may actually be stimulated by it.”
So while pragmatic, cost-benefit arguments are compelling, they do not factor into the institutional logic of the DOJ bureaucracy, which places a premium on isothymia. The DOJ is not concerned with maximizing access to online education, or even providing education to disabled people at the lowest cost, but rather making sure that the disparity in recognition felt by disabled people is as close to zero as possible. This can’t be achieved by an incremental program to make sure as many people as possible can view UC Berkeley lectures, or even by providing individual instruction to people who are hard of hearing and can’t access them. It can only be achieved by making sure that disabled members of the public can enjoy the courses in the same way, and at the same time, as everyone else, no matter how high the cost may be. From my perspective, a DOJ lawsuit shutting down Berkeley’s online course in the name of improving the condition of the disabled would be making the perfect the enemy of the good. But if the only relevant “good” is a radical equality of experience, this does not obtain.
Fukuyama identified two threats to the “post-historical” liberal politics that emerged after the Cold War. The first was what he called megalothymia—the desire by individuals and groups for distinctiveness and status and unequal recognition. Needless to say, this is as relevant as ever as hard-edged nationalism and identity politics re-assert themselves across the Western world. Donald Trump himself seems like a particularly vivid example of megalothymia in action.
But Fukuyama also identified a threat to Enlightenment liberal politics from the left: Namely, that liberal-capitalist societies, by preserving individuality and tolerating inequality in outcomes, would never be able to satisfy the desire for isothymia. The communist principle of equalizing economic outcomes may be exhausted, but the Left is continuing to search for new ways to erase naturally-occurring differences in recognition—declaring that gender is a social construct, banning speech that can injure the status of minority groups, or, to bring us back to our present example, shutting down an online education program that could bring more knowledge to many people on the grounds that it cannot be readily accessed by an unfortunate few. (It’s not a coincidence that many of the more alarming examples of “equalism” are emanating from college campuses, islands of prosperity where full equality seems very-nearly achieved).
Looking at the current political landscape, Fukuyama seems to have been correct that “the greater and ultimately more serious threat [to liberal democracy] comes from the Right”—from the megalothymic urge to vigorously and competitively assert one’s own status and prestige. But as the developments from Berkeley illustrate, the post-historical isothymic impulse, if left unchecked, can do its share of damage as well.