The Lottery Of Life

Nineteenth instalment - everything is politics

 

The politics of luck

 

If this butterfly of a blog had to be pinned down in just one categorised showcase, it would I suppose be exhibited in the case marked ‘philosophy’. I am, in these instalments, making my way towards a view of how to live.

However, everything is politics. And it should come as no surprise that there are real-world, practical and political implications arising from the facts that every individual has reached where they are because of good and bad luck, and that both good luck and bad luck tend to accumulate more of themselves during a lifetime.

In the previous instalment I allowed myself a diversion into the topic of free will, but in the instalment before that I described the vicious spirals of privilege and deprivation: those who by virtue of genetics and circumstance start off disadvantaged tend to suffer more disadvantage; those who start off with good luck tend to become more privileged. It then gets worse and even more corrosive of a tolerant, fair society, because those fortunate enough to have had good luck come to believe that they deserve their privilege; and therefore that the disadvantaged deserve their fate; and even those who have had bad luck come to believe those lies.

I would hope that by now everyone is aware of the increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots in recent years, but just in case any of my readers have missed it here’s a summary from an article written by Jack Kelly for Forbes on line on 14 May 2024:

The wealthy, who own assets like stocks, real estate and other investments, have seen their net worth and equity grow and soar higher, insulating them from inflation’s impact. Meanwhile, lower and middle-income earners are being squeezed by higher costs for essentials, like food, gasoline and rent, with their wages not keeping up with inflation.

This is not a new phenomenon. Jesus had something to say about it, according to the New Testament. I’m a sucker for the King James version. Here is Matthew, chapter 25, verse 29:

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.

Now, of course Jesus is known for talking in parables, and in this instance he’s referring not to material wealth but to the rewards of commitment to his teachings. Nonetheless the verse (there are similar renditions in the other gospels) has such resonance with the reality of the accumulation of power and wealth that sociologists have coined the term the Matthew Effect to describe said accumulation.

There are two obvious outcomes of the tendency for those who have much to receive more: wealth and power are continuously, year after year, generation after generation, placed in the hands of those with the most privilege – in other words, those who have simply had plenty of good luck, regardless of their actual abilities; and talented, clever, creative people who have grown surrounded by bad luck usually find no pathways to success and power. It’s actually worse than that, as I’ll explain, but first I’ll address the two outcomes I have identified in this paragraph.

 

The continuity of power and wealth

 

I have chosen one family at random to demonstrate how a massive dose of good luck can last a millennium.

Pictured here are some of the knights who came to England with Duke William of Normandy, who became known as ‘the Conqueror’ (due to his conquering) and was crowned king as William I.

The www.houseofnames.com web site states that one of the Norman knights who arrived in 1066 was a fellow named Giraline who came from Notre Dame de Curson in Calvados in Normandy.

Giraline had already made a good start before he stepped foot on English soil. He was a Norman – a descendent of Vikings, a member of a powerful people settled in a fertile and prosperous territory as overlords of the indigenous population. He was male in a strictly patriarchal society. He had sufficient wealth to own the accoutrements of privilege in early medieval society: horses, armour and weapons, mainly. And, clearly, given what happened when he came to England, he had the ear of his Duke, who was now also King of England. Giraline de Curson was not short of good luck.

As so often happens to those with privilege, he acquired more; his descendants yet more. The Duchess of Cleveland’s 1889 version of the Battle Abbey Roll tells us that:

Giraline de Curson was made Lord of Lockinge in Berkshire, a manor that long remained in the possession of the family, as Stephen de Curzon, Lord of West Lockinge, Berks, in 1316, is mentioned in Palgrave’s Parliamentary Writs. Giraline was a benefactor of Abingdon Abbey, and, besides his Berkshire estate, had another in Oxfordshire, both of which he must have held very soon after the date of Domesday, as his three sons lived in the reign of Henry I. Stephen, the eldest, received from Earl Ferrers the Staffordshire manor of Fauld, which passed to his heir-general, Agnes de Burton; and Giraline, the last born, died without issue. Thus the second son, Richard, enfeoffed by the same Earl of four knight’s fees in Croxhall, Kedleston, Twyford, and Edinhale in Derbyshire, became the head of the house, and first settled in the county that has been the home of the Curzons from that day to this. No family has ever better carried out the principle of one of their own mottoes, “Let Curzon hold what Curzon held”; for the estate acquired close upon eight hundred years ago remains unalienated and entire.

This is Kedleston Hall, now owned by the National Trust. It is still the home of a branch of the Curzon family: they live in the 23-room family wing.

It was commissioned in 1759 by Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Baron Scarsdale, a Tory politician, his intention being to outshine the house of his Whig neighbour the Cavendishes at Chatsworth. He certainly doesn’t appear to have been lacking in funds, but his descendants achieved yet greater privilege, one of them being appointed Viceroy of India.

There are not many families that can trace a line to a point almost a thousand years in the past. What with high infant mortality, plagues and other diseases, wars, and the whims of monarchs, the past ten centuries made direct inheritance unlikely. But the Curzons demonstrate that it was possible. And there are many other families, wealthy and powerful today, whose ancestors had good luck and which have amassed more and more good luck, in the manner of a snowball growing as it rolls down a snow-covered hillside, over the centuries. In the UK the old aristocracy, among them the Grosvenors, the Cecils, the Cavendishes, the Berkeleys; in the United States families only a little more recently established, such as the Astors, the Du Ponts, the Rockefellers.

If you don’t believe my assertions about the centuries-long heritability of power and wealth, I would refer you to this paper:

LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS AND POLITICAL SCIENCE – DEPARTMENT OF ECONOMIC HISTORY
WORKING PAPERs – 181 – NOVEMBER 2013 – Surnames and Social Mobility: England 1230-2012
Gregory Clark, University of California and Neil Cummins, London School of Economics

The authors’ research uses the surnames of students at Oxford and Cambridge universities as a measure of educational privilege, and probate records as a measure of wealth. In both cases the records are available for all years as far back as the twelfth century. The paper’s abstract summarises the research conclusions:

Typically, parent-child correlations in socioeconomic measures are in the range 0.2-0.6. Surname evidence suggests, however, that the intergenerational correlation of overall status is much higher. This paper shows, using educational status in England 1170-2012 as an example, that the true underlying correlation of social status is in the range 0.73-0.9. Social status is more strongly inherited even than height. This correlation is constant over centuries . . . Surname evidence in other countries suggests similarly slow underlying mobility rates.

In other words, whether you’re looking at attendance at elite universities or the inheritance of wealth, the same surnames keep appearing, over centuries and up to today.

Many people – mainly men – with wealth, power and influence today are from families that have had wealth, power and influence for a very long time. Is this necessarily a Bad Thing?

Well, yes, it is, for a number of reasons.

In the first place it’s unlikely that most of these people will be philanthropic: they will use their wealth, power and influence to further the interests of themselves, their families, and others like themselves, to the detriment of the rest of the population. It is all too easy for a society to become an oligarchy; and then for an oligarchy to become no more than a kleptocracy.

Joseph Proudhon declared in 1840: La propriété, c’est le vol!

While we might argue about the extent to which owning any property should be regarded as theft, there must come a point at which the concentration of property in just a few hands will be seen by the majority as robbery – particularly once it is understood that the property-owning minority own their property because their ancestors were lucky.

It can be argued – with some justification – that the entire edifice of Western liberal democracy is built on the foundation of capitalism, and that capitalism depended, at least initially, on the accumulation of wealth in a few hands. Subsistence farmers and jobbing labourers do not have the means to build factories or foundries; it was necessary for some landowners and merchants (and, it must be added, slave owners) to accumulate wealth in order to be able to invest it in cotton mills, coal mines, canals and railways.

This is all true; this is how the Industrial Revolution happened. This is why we now live in a paradise of manufactured goods, electrical appliances, personal transport and climate catastrophe.

Now, however, even if we are prepared to believe that capitalism can produce the answers to the problems that capitalism created – and that in itself is a big ask – there remains the suspicion that capitalism is no longer functioning as it once did. Wealth is still being accumulated by those already wealthy; but the wealthy are no longer laying out their wealth in ways that improve the lives of the non-wealthy. Is the world a better place now than it was before the creation of Amazon Prime, Twitter (as was), Virgin Galactic and Facebook? How does it help anyone for billionaires to buy superyachts, of which there are now more than a thousand, each costing in excess of $20 million? How many houses can a person live in at any one time?

Arguing along these lines is often decried as ‘the politics of envy’. No, it isn’t. See the sixteenth instalment of this blog, on the subject of happiness. Would I be happier if I owned a tropical island and a superyacht in which to sail to it? I don’t think so. I don’t envy the wealthy. I just wish they would realise that their wealth is down to good luck – theirs and their ancestors’.

I could go on, but I have already written too much about the continuity and accumulation of wealth and power, and the way in which those tendencies are now failing to generate the benefits that in previous centuries went some way to counterbalance their detriments.

 

Mute inglorious Miltons

 

The poet Thomas Gray, hanging about one evening in the churchyard in the village of Stoke Poges, was moved to write verses which included these:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
    The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
    And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
 
Some village Hampden, that, with dauntless breast,
    The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
    Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.

 

Thoughtful-looking chap, isn’t he? In that section of his rather long poem he was considering the villagers buried in the graves around him. Among these people, who were born, lived and died in anonymity, there might have been, he realised, a parliamentarian as stalwart as Hampden, a poet as gifted as Milton, a general as triumphant as Cromwell. In modern parlance he was mourning wasted human potential and lack of career opportunity.

And wasted human potential is the other side of the coin of accumulated wealth and power. I have already explained that the privileged acquire more privilege and the disadvantaged become more disadvantaged. The point is that the poor become poorer because the wealth flows to the wealthy.

The chart below, drawn up by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, shows the growing gap in the UK between government spending per pupil and the fees per pupil charged by private schools.

As can be seen, by 2020-21 a child of parents wealthy enough to send him or her to a private school had almost twice as much spent on his or her education than a child at a state school.

Those educated at private schools have privileged access to the best universities. An article of March 2023 in the Economist provides the information that ‘the vast majority of Britons are educated in state schools: 94% of the population’. However in 2022 roughly 30% of admissions to Oxford and Cambridge universities were pupils at private schools. An analysis in the Spectator adds the interesting fact that of the 80 schools providing pupils to Oxford and Cambridge only three were schools that have elsewhere been described as ‘bog-standard comprehensives’.

We can see the privilege – the good luck in life – accumulating before our very eyes to those who already have good luck.

But we also have to consider those who were educated in those bog-standard comprehensives. What might some of them achieve if the amount spent on their education were to be doubled? What heights might they then reach if places at elite universities were allocated fairly in proportion to type of school: 94% to state-schooled pupils, 6% to those privately educated?

What goes for education goes for every other factor in life. The number of houses and flats is finite: the wealthy get the best ones; everyone else gets the rest, down to the substandard with mould on the walls and cockroaches. The UK’s National Health Service is overstretched: the wealthy can buy private health care, in doing so depriving the NHS of doctors and nurses; the rest of the population has no option but to rely on the NHS.

The examples above are drawn from the UK but I’m confident that everywhere in the world those born with good luck get more of it; the wealthy and powerful accumulate wealth and power. And the rest are thereby deprived. We might be prepared to countenance the wealthy becoming ever wealthier if everyone else’s wealth grew too. But the opposite is the case. The ever-increasing good luck of those who already have it reduces the possibilities available to everyone else to acquire some good luck.

 

What’s even worse than that?

 

I said, near the outset of this long instalment, that beyond the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a few, and the detrimental effects of this tendency on the rest of the people, there was something even worse that I would explain later. Later is now.

It should by now be clear, I hope, that those with wealth and power are no cleverer than anyone else; they have not worked harder; they have not shown more initiative; they have simply had good luck showered upon them. Similarly among the rest of the population there are Hampdens, Miltons and Cromwells who live and die without achieving any success at all as statesmen, poets or warriors.

The remedy for these ills is often said to be meritocracy. As so often I turn to Wikipedia for a concise definition of a term.

Meritocracy . . . is the notion of a political system in which economic goods or political power are vested in individual people based on ability and talent, rather than wealth, social class, or race. Advancement in such a system is based on performance, as measured through examination or demonstrated achievement. . . Today the term is often utilised to refer to social systems in which   personal advancement and success primarily reflect an individual’s capabilities and merits, frequently seen as equality of opportunity.

Another term beloved of politicians is ‘a level playing field’ which seems to relate to the concept of equality of opportunity.

The analogy I prefer is from athletics: a running race. Let us imagine a cohort of workers, all new recruits, all at the same grade in the same organisation, and all hoping for promotion and the concomitant increase in salary. Let us now picture them lining up in the race for that promotion. The race, in their terms, consists of their performance at work: they will be judged on how effective they are, to what extent they hit targets. Promotion will be granted to the one who is deemed by managers to have performed best. It is a level playing field: all of the participants are new to the organisation; they are starting from the same place at the same time.

Here it is, then: the meritocratic running race. We see them on their blocks, waiting for the starting pistol. And we see immediately that the race is unfair. It is not like the photograph above. They are not in a line. They are distributed along the racetrack. A few are already almost at the finish line; others are so far back that they have no hope of winning the race. Those furthest ahead are the men (they are usually men) who have had good luck in their lives so far. They are strong of body, pale of skin, with no ailments or disabilities, intelligent, well fed, well educated, symmetrical of face and form, dressed expensively, possessed of the charm and blarney that seems to come naturally to the wealthy classes, laden with academic qualifications – and their parents know the chairman of the organisation. At the back of the field – so far back that they can hardly be seen – are women (and they are usually women) from deprived backgrounds, with physical or mental difficulties, dark of skin, poorly educated, lacking in confidence, lacking the wherewithal to make an impression with clothes and hairstyle. Their colleagues are spread out along the track, their position dictated by the good and bad luck that has accrued to them.

The starting pistol is fired. And look! One of those clever, smart young men has already been promoted.

So much for meritocracy.

Even if all progress – through school, work, life – is made purely on merit (merit being performance, however that is judged) the outcomes will inevitably favour those with the good luck to have the abilities and attitudes that lead to achievement in the performance being judged.

It is reasonable to assume that a meritocratic society would reward those citizens who demonstrate qualities such as diligence, intelligence, hard work. At first sight that seems fair. But what about the man with learning difficulties who likes to paint: is he to be restricted to the lowest level of society? In what way is he a worse person than anyone else?

And is it reasonable to reward a person who happens to be clever and diligent? The fact that he possesses these characteristics is – as I have argued exhaustively – just a matter of good luck. He can claim no credit.

Meritocracy does nothing to solve the unfairness, cruelty and waste that are the signature features of human societies. It is a chimera – a false hope, a distraction. For as long as ‘equality of opportunity’ is the go-to solution for politicians anxious to address the imbalances in society, nothing will improve. For meritocracy merely replaces the old inequality with a new one – one that is possibly even more pernicious as it appears so reasonable.

In a subsequent instalment of this blog I might allow myself to be tempted into suggesting, very tentatively, some mechanisms for adjusting society for the benefit of all, and in particular those who have started with bad luck.

For the moment, though, even though everything is politics, that is enough. In the next instalment I’ll resume my exploration of what a life determined by good and bad luck means for the individual.

 

 

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.