Halloween is weeks away, but the monster is already at the door.
It’s not your four-year-old neighbor under a pointed hat. It’s not even her witchy parent demanding that you don a three-ply mask, or the serial sniffer admiring her coiffure. They’re all just playing for treats.
The real threat is a Monster created by the modern Frankensteins, the Men of System enamored of their brilliant schemes for equity and morally blinded by their own hubris. Like Mary Shelley’s scientist in Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus (1818), such people unwittingly created something monstrous because they believed they held a marvelous secret: not life, but how to solve the problem of inequity.
And like Shelley’s Frankenstein, they were so dazzled by the beauty of their design that they forgot humanity itself. As Adam Smith explains in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, such leaders treat people like pieces on a chessboard, imagining individuals can be moved to new positions to achieve desired outcomes.
In these Modern Frankensteins’ new systems, all groups will achieve equal outcomes in education, business, and income. Their plans will “level the playing field.”
The results can be seen in the monstrous leveling of neighborhoods, reputations, and standards.
Riots across the country have destroyed up to $2 billion in property and may have a long-term impact on the economy. Cancel culture warriors have attacked intellectual giants such as David Hume, whose name the University of Edinburgh removed from one of its buildings. And politicians in California have passed a new law that requires publicly traded companies to include minorities on their boards, thereby imposing government standards where companies are best suited to decide.
It is a kind of revolution that Mary Shelley recognized and feared. In Frankenstein, Victor brings his creature to life on a dreary night in November of 1793, the period when the French Revolution escalated into The Terror. In France and in her novel, good intentions do not stave off bloody outcomes. It is a lesson we need today.
Victor Frankenstein creates the first of his new species by stitching together parts gathered from graves, dissecting rooms, and slaughter houses. Such variety was necessary because Victor was in a hurry: “As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed I resolved . . . to make the being of a gigantic stature; that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large.”
Anticipating his accomplishment and the “gratitude” of this new species, Victor fails to see what he is creating until the moment it comes to life: “I had selected his features as beautiful,” Victor explains. Instead it has “watery eyes,” a “shriveled complexion, and straight black lips.” Victor runs away, refusing to accept responsibility.
The creature becomes a miserable, pitiable outcast, and this is where our Modern Frankensteins differ. Rather than rejecting the creature, they nurture grievances against inequity, teaching that revenge is justice, and that a fairer system would guarantee equal outcomes for everyone.
Of course, they omit that “equal outcomes” does not mean prosperity. Everyone could be equally poor, as in Venezuela. Or everyone can live longer and be richer by embracing modern capitalism, as the inimitable Deirdre McCloskey has proven in her Bourgeois Trilogy.
But the Creature and his descendant, the Monstrous Mob, never hear this. Believing all humans sinned against him, the Creature feels justified in destroying everyone else. He holds them collectively responsible and resents what today’s Men of System call “privilege.”
In Frankenstein, the abandoned creature’s killing spree starts with an eight-year-old boy, whom he kills with “hellish triumph” because he is Victor Frankenstein’s brother. He frames a beautiful woman for the murder because he resents that he will never have a woman like her. He kills Victor’s best friend and even Victor’s innocent bride, all to hurt Victor.
While Victor is horrified, some current theorists encourage the mob to enact a “national reckoning.” Many justify the destruction of property and looting. Some professors insist that violence is an effective way to bring attention to problems. Others declare themselves unwilling to state how rioters ought to protest—until, that is, they experience it.
Last summer, the mayor in Seattle repeatedly insisted that the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) was peaceful, “more like a block party.” She supported the autonomous zone until the violence forced her to acknowledge that it should be shut down. She then became adamant about the closure when protesters marched to her home.
What we create comes to haunt us.
In Frankenstein, Victor experiences this point when the creature, now himself a Man of System, demands that Victor make him a mate (the alternative: he will kill more people). The Creature asserts that his mate will adopt his tastes and go to South America with him. How he knows her aspirations or affections, he does not say. She is only another piece on his chess board.
A few modern theorists may be staring at their own chess boards, wondering how pieces started moving of their own volition. But that was always inevitable, as anyone who has read Frankenstein or Smith or Hayek would know. Imagining that we can plan great systems and have all the knowledge to control them is folly.
Worse, it is dangerous, since the acceptance of the mob’s rage is spreading. Initially, many were shocked by one Black Lives Matters leader who insisted that politicians meet their demands, or they would “burn down” this system. A few months later, this rhetoric is becoming mainstream, with CNN journalist Don Lemon suggesting it is time to “blow up” the whole political system.
It is time to heed the warning of Frankenstein, time to acknowledge the Monster at our national door and the hubris that led intellectuals to create it. For make no mistake, it seeks not only “treats” but the thrill of perpetuating nasty “tricks”—to “blow up” or “burn down” our country to achieve the false promise of “equity.” And in that game, we are all losers.
Dr. Caroline Breashears is a Professor of English at St. Lawrence University. Caroline received her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia and specializes in eighteenth-century British literature. Recent publications include Eighteenth-Century Women’s Writing and the “Scandalous Memoir” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and articles in Aphra Behn Online and the International Journal of Pluralistic and Economics Education. She was recently an Adam Smith Scholar at Liberty Fund, and her current research focuses on Adam Smith and literature. She teaches courses on fairy tales, eighteenth-century British Literature, and Jane Austen.