The first paragraph describes a society where all individuals show equal levels of intelligence, ability, and physical attractiveness.
Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.
The first paragraph also provides us with the first hints of how this has been achieved. It attributes the new state of affairs to the passage of constitutional amendments, and to the enforcement of an agency run by the "United States Handicapper General."
One definition of "handicap" is "A disadvantage imposed on a superior competitor in sports such as golf, horse racing, and competitive sailing in order to make the chances more equal" (Oxford English Dictionary).
That is the sense in which the word is used in this story. As we continue reading, we learn the details.
In this future, there is still spontaneous or natural variation between individuals. What's different is that the government levels the playing field by imposing restrictions on people who show evidence of superiority. People who are more intelligent than average must wear a device that blasts painful, disorienting noises in their ears every 20 seconds. The distraction reduces their effective, functioning intelligence to average levels. Similarly, graceful, swift, or physically strong people are forced to wear awkward weights that hinder movement. People with pretty faces must wear ugly masks, and so on.
The rules are enforced, in part, by threat of punishment. George indicates he would face "two years in prison and two thousand dollars fine" if he took a single ball weight out of the bag he carries around his neck.
A major theme in the story is that people follow the rules because they accept the government's ideology. They believe violating the rules would lead to a general breakdown of society, "and pretty soon we'd be right back to the dark ages again."
In the first paragraph of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s short story "Harrison Bergeron," the US Constitution has been amended hundreds of times, and the last three Amendments require American citizens to be completely equal in every facet of life. The 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution require every citizen in America to have the same level of intelligence and physical ability (which conjures images of a mundane, oppressed society that lacks diversity and uniqueness). Vonnegut also writes that the completely equal society is also due to the vigilance of the US Handicapper General. In addition to amending the Constitution, the US Handicapper General is determined to maintain a completely equal society by handicapping the more talented, intelligent, and/or beautiful people. The US Handicapper General forces physically talented individuals to wear cumbersome weights on their bodies, and intelligent citizens are required to wear enormous headphones that continually disrupt their thought process. Beautiful people are required to wear ugly masks to ensure equality. There is a severe penalty for removing any of these handicaps.
The year is 2081 and the narrator says that equality has finally been achieved. One of the things that sticks out in this opening paragraph is the claim that everyone is equal "before God." The department of the Handicapper General has the audacity to suggest that their implementation of "equality" has actually met with God's approval. This shows the extent of their hubris and the extent of their delusion about what equality in America should actually be. In American, the notion of equality is based upon equal rights and equal opportunity. But in this scenario, people are handicapped and/or discouraged from improving themselves. Their opportunities are squashed. If someone has a higher intelligence quotient, he/she is handicapped. The same goes for being too attractive or having too much physical ability. In a sense, they are all equal, but this equality is achieved by limiting and oppressing the people. Needless to say, an omniscient God would look at this society and see their notion of equality as a partial enslavement of the populace.
The opening paragraph of Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" quickly establishes the setting for the story:
The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.
These seven sentences give us a lot of information. First of all, the story is set in the United States but at a future date. In the roughly one hundred years which have elapsed since the story was written, nearly two hundred Amendments have been added to the Constitution (do the math and the percentage of increase is gigantic). We presume that most of them are connected to the goal of making everyone equal under the law, and it is the details of that which begin to make us uneasy.
When we read that every single person in the country is now "equal in every which way," we are nervous. When we read that no one is smarter than anyone else, our fear is that now everyone is dumb. When we read that no one is better-looking than anyone else, we are certain that now no one is good-looking (that everyone is now plain or, even worse, ugly). When everyone has the same level of strength and quickness, we know that everyone is now weaker and slower.
Just as frightening as these these results is the way they have been achieved. We learn more details as the story progresses, but what we know from the first paragraph is that this hoped-for and much-lauded equality is vigilantly maintained by government agents. We have the slightest hint of what is to come when we see the word "Handicapper," but it is just a suggestion. In any case, it does not bode well for the country when equality is maintained through handicapping.
"Handicapping" is setting someone at some sort of disadvantage for the benefit of someone else: society is maintained as "equal" because Handicappers see to it that disadvantage is distributed where needed to maintain an equality in all areas.