Luck

Talent and hard work play a big part in determining people's success. But two other factors are at play, over which people have no control. One is who they are, and in what circumstances they grow up. Do they have the luck of being born into a rich, well-connected family, or a poor, marginalised one? Do they benefit or suffer from social and structural biases and injustices linked to their race, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability or other factors? What impact does the place where they live have on their life chances? The second is how lucky they are during their lifetime in terms of random events that happen to them. Do they launch their business just before a boom or a depression? Do they sail through life in perfect health or develop a rare form of cancer in middle age?

Both of these aspects of good or bad luck are outside people's control. They are what philosophers who belong to the school of ‘luck egalitarianism’ call 'brute’ or unearned luck, as distinct from 'option’ or earned luck, which is affected by a person's actions. Option luck is a matter of how deliberate and calculated gambles turn out – whether someone gains or loses through accepting an isolated risk that he or she should have anticipated and might have declined (which might include some illnesses, where lifestyle is a factor). Most people would agree that, while people bear personal responsibility for those things that are within their control, they are not responsible for the circumstances into which they are born, or for bad or good things that happen to them during their life over which they have no control. People who end up at the bottom of society - for example, the homeless – may have suffered the effects of both forms of bad luck, being born into disadvantage and then suffering a catastrophic life event that they lack the resilience to cope with. And yet society generally does very little to help people to recover from these shocks and to reverse the vicious circle that often results from them. As outlined above, luck egalitarians believe that society should take steps to correct inequalities arising from good or bad unearned luck, while respecting those inequalities that arise from good or bad earned luck. The steps taken to correct unearned luck might involve monetary compensation (such as redistribution of income or wealth through the tax system), but they might also involve measures to combat other aspects of their disadvantage, such as steps to overcome prejudice or to integrate people better into society.

Of course, there are many cases where the distinction between option luck and brute luck, or earned and unearned luck, is less clear. What about the alcoholic who suffers later in life from chronic liver disease? Is collapsing into drug addiction the result of unearned bad luck or of bad choices? In many cases both are in play and feed off each other. It should not be (and could not be) the role of the state to judge the extent to which a particular individual’s situation is the result of earned or unearned lack (good or bad). We cannot assess and then react to issues around luck, agency or due desert at the individual level. However, we can choose as a society to recognise that there is both a moral and a socio-economic case for helping people who have suffered bad luck, even if some or most of that luck has come about due to bad decisions. The case for taking action, rather than letting nature take its course, has several dimensions:

  • Firstly, there is a strong moral argument, in line with the teachings of most major religions and the writing of many philosophers. Quite simply, those who have fallen on hard times deserve our sympathy and our support, regardless of the circumstances that led them there.
  • Secondly, there is a socio-economic argument for action. Allowing people to sink to the bottom is not only bad for them, it is bad for society at large. It creates a whole set of undesirable social problems – crime, homelessness, ill health – that impose economic costs on society and are expensive to fix. It is much better – and much cheaper – to prevent those problems from occurring in the first place, or failing that, to tackle them before they get worse. The extent to which the individual is judged to be ‘deserving’ of support is as irrelevant to this argument as it is to the moral argument for action.
  • Thirdly, we know that in most cases, someone who has ended up in need of help is likely to have suffered at least some degree of unearned bad luck, and probably a large amount. We now understand much more than we used to about how insufficient support in early childhood, inadequate education, low-paying and low-quality jobs, inadequate housing, and high levels of economic inequality all have a huge impact on both quality of life and life chances, on health outcomes, on crime. We also have a more sophisticated understanding of the compound effects of these unfair inequalities of opportunity. They are compounded in two directions – horizontally (in that, for example, people can at the same time be disadvantaged by several factors, such as their gender, race, and class or family income) and vertically (in that having less access to opportunities at one stage in life is likely to lead to even worse access to opportunities later in life).
  • Fourthly, we know that the consequences of unearned bad luck, such as living in poverty or being unemployed or suffering from ill health, have real impacts on the choices that people are able to make. People who are struggling to make it through the next day rarely have the luxury of being able to make decisions that might seem rational from the outside. Living with adversity can force people to prioritise short-term needs over their longer-term interests; it can impede people’s capacity to make rational decisions; but it can also reduce the set of available choices, forcing people to decide between the least bad options in the absence of any ‘good’ choices. This makes it impossible to neatly separate earned and unearned bad luck based on factors that are within or outside people’s control.
  • Finally, helping people whose situation is at least in part of their own making does not mean that we have to embrace the idea of equal outcomes. We can provide them with enough support to get them back on their feet, to provide them with a minimum standard of living and the opportunities to recover and to make better decisions and to earn their own good luck, so that they can start to contribute to society and the economy rather than needing to be supported by it. Meanwhile, we can target more public resources to those whose bad luck is entirely unearned – to children who have been born into disadvantaged circumstances, and need more support to equalise their life chances with those who have had the good luck of being born into a situation of relative privilege.

The same difficulty of distinguishing between earned and unearned luck applies to good luck. There is the unearned good luck of being born into comfortable circumstances. Then there is the question of how much natural talent (and capacity for hard work) someone is born with. In a sense, the nature versus nurture argument is not relevant here, since both are functions of unearned good (or bad) luck. Most luck egalitarians believe that, since circumstances of birth and levels of natural talent are equally arbitrary (i.e. subject to unearned luck), it makes sense for society to correct both equally. The preferred mechanism for achieving this is to redistribute income (or wealth) so that those who are born into more disadvantaged circumstances and/or with less natural talent end up with a comparable standard of living to their more fortunate peers, with the only legitimate source of inequality being the amount of hard work that a person chooses to do.

We do not agree that society should try to compensate entirely for the natural talents that people are born with. While there might be a theoretical argument for doing this, the practical implications are that a 100% income tax would need to be introduced so as to give everyone an equal income, except that the amount of redistributed income received would be in proportion to how many hours per day somebody chooses to work. This feels not only unachievable but also undesirable, since it removes the incentives for people to maximise their potential by developing the talents that they were born with. Removing inequality of reward in this way would also reduce total economic output and thereby reduce average incomes. John Rawls’s difference principle suggests that we should allow inequality of reward, but only to the level that makes the lowest-paid workers in society as well-off as possible. It also points to the idea of a minimum income level for all workers. We can generate enough revenue to support such a minimum income level by making the tax system more progressive and effective, so as to better share out at least some of the unearned good luck that arises from being born with natural talents (as well as the earned good luck of working hard or making good choices). In particular, the taxation of unearned income should be brought more into line with the taxation of earned income, since unearned income is very often the result of unearned good luck (such as inheriting property or shares).

A fairer society would also invest more resources in education and other public services that help people to discover and maximise their talents. Everyone is born with natural talent in one or more areas, and often these are untapped and wasted. A better-resourced and more balanced education system could do much more to find and nurture the talents of children and adults alike, whatever they are. There is a risk that efforts to iron out variations in natural talent, grounded in luck egalitarianism, are too focused on more conventional talents that have a direct and obvious bearing on academic attainment and earning potential, and miss this broader spectrum of latent talent and capability.

Luck egalitarianism has also been criticised by ‘relational egalitarians’, such as Elizabeth Anderson. As outlined above, part of this critique is that society should not abandon people who make bad choices, and that luck egalitarianism might lead to the demeaning treatment of people who suffer the bad luck of being ‘untalented’. Relational egalitarianism goes further, however, by arguing that equality is about the nature of social relations between people more than it is about how resources are distributed, and that an equal society is one where no one has unjust power over anyone else. The priority is that everyone should be socially, rather than economically, equal. But it argues that reducing economic inequality is important as a prerequisite to achieving social (or relational) equality, even if it is not an end in itself. However, the flaw with this approach is that there are several ways in which economic inequality is problematic that go beyond their consequences for social inequality, as outlined for example in The Spirit Level, and relational egalitarianism would not see these as priorities. It is therefore hard to make the case that this approach alone would form a sufficient basis for building a truly fair society.

If you have good luck, a fair society should ask you to share a bit more of it with others. If you have bad luck, a fair society should help you to overcome it. We should invest in building a fairer society because it is in everyone’s interests to prevent bad outcomes before they happen. The next section goes a step further, by examining the possibility of not only preventing bad outcomes, but also of ‘designing out’ some aspects of bad luck altogether.