Well, do you?
We don’t give enough thought (or weight) to the role of luck in life. This week’s edition of Fair Comment tries to redress the balance.
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Designing out bad luck
Most people would agree that everyone should have equal life chances. Many people also think that we live in a meritocracy, where talent and hard work are rewarded by success and status, and opportunities are there for whoever is willing to work for them. But the flip side of this view of life is that those who have not made it to the top have failed to put in the legwork. 'You can make it if you try' implies that, if you haven't made it, you haven't tried, and you deserve what you get.
People can only enjoy equal opportunities to succeed when there is a level playing field. The angle of that playing field is now so steep that only the most brilliant of those who find themselves at the bottom can scramble up. To use another metaphor, it’s like a hurdler competing against a sprinter without any extra time allowance. The unfairness starts at birth, and once a child has grown up, it is usually too late to correct for it.
We haven’t done enough to tackle substantive barriers to opportunity - the ‘unfair’ inequalities that are caused by the circumstances of someone’s birth. Where they are born. Their ethnicity. Their gender. Their family’s income. Whether they are disabled. A truly fair society would give each of us the same substantive opportunities to realise their potential, regardless of the circumstances into which we were born. This means removing the many structural barriers that face people born into disadvantaged circumstances, so that they do not need to be incredibly talented and hardworking to benefit from the same opportunities as everyone else. It means effectively ‘designing out bad luck’. We cannot escape the fact that this requires us to reduce the degree of economic inequality in our society. As things stand, too many people are swimming against the tide at every turn.
Why is luck important? To be sure, hard works play a big part in determining people's success. But several 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 good luck of being born into a rich, well-connected family, or the bad luck of being born into 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? Another 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?
Some fascinating research in recent years has attempted to measure inequality of opportunity - to separate out to what extent inequality is the result of unequal life chances as opposed to individual effort. In 2017, researchers tentatively estimated that childhood circumstances (family income, parents’ education, ethnicity and so on) are responsible for 31 percent of inequality in the UK. However, experts believe that this is likely to be a considerable underestimate, because of the difficulty of capturing the full range of relevant factors. They also suggest that, as economic inequality increases, the importance of childhood circumstances will increase further.
If pushed, I would suggest that half of the inequality that we see in our society today is the result of childhood circumstances. The other half is influenced by a combination of talent, hard work and random luck during life. It’s worth noting that talent is also governed by luck - the genetic lottery. Someone’s capacity and propensity for hard work is influenced both by their genes and by the circumstances in which they grow up. And ‘random’ luck during life is also influenced by circumstances. We have seen this during the COVID pandemic, where people in certain jobs (disproportionately those from particular socio-economic and ethnic groups) have been at much greater risk of both contracting and dying of the disease.
And of course, today’s high levels of economic inequality in the UK mean that children’s circumstances differ dramatically. We will never be able to compensate sufficiently for these unequal circumstances to deliver equal life chances. The only surefire way to achieve this goal is to reduce the underlying inequalities. Rather than giving people extra time because of the hurdles that they must jump over, why not just remove the hurdles? This is what we mean when we talk about designing out bad luck.
Read more about luck in The Fair Necessities:
Poll of the week
How much of a role do you think luck plays in life?
Based on your own life experience, or your thoughts about society in general, how would you rank the influence on life chances of talent, hard work, circumstances at birth, and good or back luck over the course of someone’s life?
Last week’s poll asked whether the government should introduce more price caps in response to the cost of living crisis. Every who responded thought that the price of energy should be capped more than it currently is; no one thought that the status quo was acceptable or that all price caps should be abolished. 91% of you were in favour of some form of cap on housing costs, alongside 87% for further price controls on transport, 78% on food and 39% on clothing.
Reads of the week
A listen, not a read - Professor Sir Angus Deaton and Paul Johnson from the Institute for Fiscal Studies were on BBC Radio 4 last week talking about tackling inequality with BBC Economics Editor Faisal Islam.
BBC Radio 4 - Analysis, Tackling Inequality
Probing the results of a major study into our unequal society. Probing the results of a major study into our unequal society. Faisal Islam, BBC Economics Editor, talks to two leading experts on inequality, who have together been working for several years on a research project for the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies also published a fascinating research paper on political equality, asking what is it and why it matters. It argues that political inequality is not just about the skewed distribution of power and influence (i.e. lobbying or the wider influence of money on politics), but is also about broader social relationships and the idea of ‘equal consideration’ for everyone - in terms of both participation and representation. Even if we succeed in equalising the distribution of power and influence in our democracy, we may not necessarily succeed in designing ‘principles and processes that express [equal] respect for all’, giving everyone equal access to effective engagement in civic life. See also our democracy briefing.
A major review into ethnic inequalities in healthcare by the NHS Race and Health Observatory has revealed vast inequalities across a range of health services (quite apart from the disproportionate impact of socio-economic inequalities on the health outcomes of ethnic minorities in the UK).
The Women’s Budget Group and the New Economics Foundation have published new research that calculates the cost of all the reforms needed to create a high-quality, universal care service with well-paid care workers, and shows that the government’s new health and social care levy would only raise 6% of the funds needed to create such a service.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan has described air pollution as a social justice issue at a summit of regional and national health leaders to tackle toxic emissions that are damaging the health of Londoners, as described in The Guardian.
Iza Kavedžija has written for The Conversation about wellbeing, and how living well together works for the common good, making a persuasive case for the importance of reciprocity in interpersonal relationships.
Fairness Foundation updates
Our next joint event with the KCL Policy Institute is this Wednesday, 23 February, at 5pm, discussing social mobility with Professor Selina Todd and panellists.
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