Laser beam surgery has now made it possible to correct many common eye defects caused by irregularities in the shape of the lens of the eve relative to the size of the eyeball. For those with severely impaired eyesight, this means a welcome escape from a serious handicap. However, for children who are only mildly shortsighted, the operation could cause problems as well as benefits, for myopia is a source of success and social mobility. Some have argued that there is a correlation between myopia and innate intelligence, which are simultaneously caused by two related patterns of genes. It has even been suggested that the manifest success of spectacle-wearing peoples such as the Japanese and the Jews and the relative failure of members of ethnic groups with good eyesight merely reflects this correlation. Whether this hypothesis is true or not may never be determined, for it is far too politically incorrect a theory to receive the research funding necessary to test it.

Rather, it is generally assumed by those who hold power in the health, education, and welfare bureaucracies that the link is an environmental one. For most of human history the myopic were failures and doomed to the earK death that was the fate of those who could not see a charging mammoth, an enraged hippo or a horde of scimitar-waving Mamelukes until it was too late. In the modern world, by contrast, success goes to those who concentrate all their attention on objects next to their noses—a computer screen, a microscope, a balance sheet, or a legal loophole. That the world beyond is a blurred penumbra visible only through a lens of glass or plastic is a very real advantage, for it cuts out the distractions of sport, sex, and scenery that lead most of us astray, for the perfect-sighted, the publicity given to the rise of the myopic has confirmed their worst secret fear: that old four-eyes, the squit-faced swot, whom they hated at school, really has overtaken them.

For the lower classes myopia and the wearing of spectacles assist those who are reasonably intelligent to rise in the world through entrepreneurship or education because they decisively block off such queer routes to mobility as football, crime, the entertainment industry, or marriage to a rich spouse. Men never make passes at girls who wear glasses, nor do pebble-lensed football players masquerading as stars. Since the chances of any particular lower-class individual making it to the top through male agility or female beauty are very small indeed, those who know from an early age that they are shortsighted and unsightly are saved from a dangerous delusion and are motivated to seek more reliable wavs of bettering themselves. Shortsightedness breeds farsightedness while those who dreamed of stardom end up where they began, at the bottom of the heap.

The discovery of the link between myopia and success has created deep ideological divisions among socialists comparable to those that led to the collapse of the Labor government in 1951, when Harold Wilson and Nye Bevan resigned over the crucial issue of whether the state should provide free eyeglasses and false teeth as part of the National Health Service. The cabinet decided that there was no such thing as a free munch, but its left wing disagreed, and the government collapsed and then lost the ensuing general election. In other countries politics is spectacle; in Britain spectacles are politics.

The old guard of the British left still proclaim that everyone has the right to perfect eyesight, if not better, and wants eyeglasses, contact lenses, and laser surgery to be provided free by the state. The revisionists, however, feel that it is wrong to deprive myopic lower-class children of a defect that would enable them to rise in the world. Accordingly they argue that spectacles in the good old-fashioned National Health Service frames (you can have any shape you like provided it is round) should be free to all, but that the laser beam correction of myopia should be left to private medicine, which the poor can’t afford. The vanity of the rich will ensure that their children’s poor eyesight, like their crooked teeth, will be operated on, regardless of cost, but an unintended consequence of this will be the loss of an important part of their good start in life. Somewhere below them the bespectacled sons and daughters of menials will be steadily climbing up the ladder while they fall down the snake. For those radical socialists who believe in massive positive discrimination, even this is not enough. Equality demands a radical redistribution of myopia in a way that favors those disadvantaged by social class, race, ethnicity, sexual preference, or stupidity: they have a right to shortsightedness that must be provided by the state for those not so favored by nature. If laser surgery can cure myopia, it can also create it. In this way, they argue, bourgeois concepts of health can be subordinated to the higher goal of social equality, much as has long been true of education, welfare, and religion. In the coming socialist Utopia, visible only to those with the correct radical astigmatism, myopia, like abortion or the removal of unsightly tattoos, will be not only a medical right but a social necessity.