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“Luck” can be defined as good fortune or advantage that arises as a result of chance.  But people can have double standards in how they regard instances of good or bad luck.  Basically, the more an instance of good luck resembles good luck we have experienced in the past or which we can envisage experiencing in the future, the more likely we are to regard that instance of good luck as being fair and valid.  On the other hand, when we cannot relate to the circumstances that accompanied the good luck, it may elicit feelings of disdain, resentment, or jealousy, but we tend to accept it as valid nonetheless.  Bad luck can yield feelings of injustice, unfairness, and anger when it happens to us, and sympathy, indifference, or even pleasure (schadenfreude) when it happens to someone else.  

There is a school of distributive justice that has emerged over the past three decades called “luck egalitarianism” that concerns itself with compensating for inequalities that arise as a result of bad luck.  Luck egalitarian theorists refer to luck which arises as a result of an individual’s conscious choice (e.g., picking a stock or choosing a career) as “option luck” and that which does not arise from conscious choice (e.g., a genetic disability) as “brute luck.”  While there is some variety in the thinking of luck egalitarian scholars, they basically attempt to identify instances where bad luck befell someone through no fault of their own and where the person’s loss should be reduced or eliminated.  The thinking is that someone should not be worse or better off than others due to factors that lie outside their control, with some luck egalitarian scholars regarding the proper source of compensation for those who have suffered bad brute luck to be the resources that have accrued to those who have made gains through good brute luck.  In other words, rather than shrugging their shoulders in response to both brute luck that is good and that which is bad, they argue in favor of redistributing gains from those with good luck to those with bad brute luck.  

While the luck egalitarian literature tends to focus on bad brute luck and how to compensate for it, what follows below will examine instances of good brute luck.  Let’s take a look first at a quintessential example of good brute luck – the lottery.  Unless you consider picking numbers to be some sort of talent, winning the lottery is certainly an excellent example of good brute luck.  (For our purposes, I am not referring to modest winnings, but rather to very large lottery jackpots.)   Winnings are frequently in the millions of dollars, occasionally in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  The winners have done nothing more than picking some numbers and purchasing a ticket.  (In many cases, winners don’t even pick their own numbers).  The lucky jackpot winners have not established or operated a profitable business, achieved greatness in professional sports, excelled at entertaining audiences, or engaged in any other productive activity that is normally rewarded with great wealth in our society.  Yet these people, by dint of good fortune, come into not just wealth, but, in some cases, enough money to operate a modestly sized city.  While others in our country scrape by with wholly inadequate food, shelter, and healthcare, these lottery winners receive enough money to buy mansions, yachts, fancy cars, and more, all for doing absolutely nothing.

Admittedly, the lottery brings in a great deal of money for education and other worthy purposes.  But what does the lottery say about who should enjoy great wealth in our society?  It says that wealth should go to the lucky, rather than to those who may need it most or who contribute most to building our society.  Although winnings are usually subject to tax, we need to ask whether there is not a better way to fund education than by flipping our values upside down.

Let us move on to a second example of good brute luck, one which has garnered a fair amount of attention in the luck egalitarian literature – being born into a wealthy family.  Sometimes referred to as winning “the birth lottery,” this includes people who benefitted from growing up in a wealthy household, with all the good education, social connections, and other advantages that come with it, and/or people who inherit large fortunes from their ancestors.  (Of course, here again I am referring to very large fortunes, not modestly sized estates intended simply to provide some degree of a comfortable life for one’s heirs.)   As in the case of the lottery, the fortunate individuals did nothing to earn their advantages, and they are accountable to no one, except perhaps a trustee, for how they dispose of their good fortune.  

Is this fair?  Well, looked at in this way, it’s not, which is part of the reason why large fortunes are subject to an estate tax that is supposed to reduce the accumulation of dynastic wealth.  But it is not terribly effective, as there are ways around the estate tax’s bite, and it still leaves enormous fortunes in the hands of heirs.  Some look at the issue through the lens of the individual’s right to decide what will be done with their property after they are gone, and the disincentive it would pose on the creation of wealth if that right is taken away from them.  While this perspective does have some validity, it needs to be balanced against the threat that the accumulation of large fortunes poses to the democratic and equitable character of our society.  

One obvious answer is to increase taxation of large estates and use the revenue for relief for poor people who have experienced bad brute luck.  Unfortunately, that is a fraught notion, as powerful players are arrayed against any proposal to increase estate taxes.  That having been said, many heirs to large fortunes go on to put the funds to productive use, though that is an opportunity to which those who are not as fortunate do not have access.  Notably, some well-known tycoons, such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, have pledged to give the bulk of their fortunes away to charity when they die. While these pledges are often motivated by a desire to ensure that heirs are productive and able to support themselves and do not spend their lives lazily living off of their inherited wealth, it is nevertheless an approach to inherited wealth that should be applauded.

Let us look at a third example of good luck that was not earned – the oil kingdoms of the Middle East.  We are all aware that some countries were fortunate enough to be situated on top of gargantuan reserves of petroleum and gas.  These countries would include, most notably, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait.  (Iraq also has enormous petroleum reserves, but I would hardly consider that country’s situation to be an example of good luck.)  The good fortune of these countries has made them extraordinarily wealthy, even though they did nothing much to create that wealth, with credit for it belonging to mother Earth.  As countries have sovereignty over the resources that lie within their territory, this oil and gas wealth accrues to their governments — very conservative monarchies that cannot be said to be terribly accountable to their people.  Thus, this wealth fuels highly undemocratic political systems and repressive societies that enjoy this bounty simply because of the good luck of where their countries happen to be located.  It can be said that these countries have hit the jackpot in the natural resource lottery.

What makes matters worse is the uses to which these countries put their good fortune.  While some of their wealth goes to international aid, too large a portion of oil and gas revenues go to pay for the Rolls-Royces and mansions of their royal families and other fortunate elites, glitzy skyscrapers that sit half empty, ski slopes in the desert, wars such as that in Yemen, and other foolish and profligate projects.  Compounding this is their failure to pull their fair share in building civilization, despite the enormous wealth that could be deployed to that aim.  How many great literary figures or artists, Nobel Prize winners, award-winning architects, or brilliant scientists have the oil kingdoms produced?  The world has a right to expect more from incredibly wealthy countries.  Instead, these countries use their enormous wealth to purchase universities, great works of art, and other baubles, rather than creating any of it themselves.    

You may ask what can be done about this situation.  That is a very tough, though certainly valid, question.  As noted above, these governments have the legal right to exploit the oil and gas reserves on which they sit.  But there are many countries that also have the good fortune to have large reserves of valuable natural resources within their borders, meaning that any regime to channel more wealth from natural resources to less fortunate countries would be a tough sell to say the least.  (In this regard, think of for example Chilean lithium or Botswanan diamonds.)  But, for some reason, the oil kingdoms are a particularly troubling case.  Their wasteful use of their wealth, their sclerotic societies and political systems, and their anemic contributions to world civilization make them look like a coddled child who happened to be lucky enough to be born into an extremely wealthy family that spoils them rotten with nothing expected in return.

There is a sub-school of luck egalitarianism called “global luck egalitarianism” that is relevant to the case of the oil kingdoms, insofar as it seeks to apply the principles of luck egalitarianism to inequalities in the circumstances of countries around the globe.  While I endorse the principles of global luck egalitarianism for the reasons noted above, many would regard as utopian the prescriptions global luck egalitarianism might seek to offer for addressing such inequalities among nations.

I will now take you on a tangent of sorts concerning what luck egalitarianism has to say about good option luck.  We are talking here about gain that is achieved as a result of natural talent and hard work.  Most thinkers on the subject believe that this group’s good fortune should not be taken away, because it is perceived as being a just reward for talent and diligence and to take too much of it away would disincentivize people from putting their skills and industriousness to use.  

There is another perspective, however, and that is that such talent and diligence are themselves the product of upbringing, education, and genetics to a large extent.  Seen in this way, the talented and hard-working individual’s situation starts to resemble that of the winner of the genetic or birth lottery mentioned above.  What I mean here is that the gifts enjoyed by the talented and diligent can themselves be seen as instances of good brute luck, casting their good fortune in a different light.  

In closing, I want to mention an interesting parallel between this perspective and the ethical approach that Judaism takes toward charity.  The Hebrew word for charity (tzedakah) literally means “justice,” the notion being that the unfortunate person’s plight is due at least in part to injustice in the world, and that justice therefore demands that part of the fortunate person’s success be given to the unfortunate person.  This strikes me as a most enlightened way to look at good and bad luck.