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Created: May 21, 2005
Latest Update: May 21, 2005
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May 21, 2005
Taking Luck Seriously
By MATT MILLER
Test your political philosophy with one simple question: which matters most in determining where people end up in life?
You've got two choices. The first is "luck" - by which I mean the pre-birth lottery, that inherited package of wealth, health, genes, looks, brains, talents and family. "Luck" is all those gifts or curses for which we can neither take credit nor be blamed.
Choice No. 2 is individual effort, hard work and personal character.
Obviously this is a false choice; every life is a blend of both. We're born with certain endowments, and make the most of them (or don't) based on personal traits. But if you had to say which one matters most in shaping where people end up, how many of you would join me in answering "luck"?
In a poll I commissioned a few years ago, people who call themselves liberals or Democrats overwhelmingly said luck; most conservatives or Republicans said individual effort.
But if you're hoping to shake up today's gridlocked politics, what's interesting is that independent voters - now the nation's biggest bloc - viewed luck the way Democrats do.
Luck isn't a bad proxy for what the current Times series labels "class." It's a theme U.S. politics conspicuously avoids. Yet if we approached it right - if we took luck seriously - we'd be on the way to the commonsense consensus needed to make progress on our fixable injustices.
What should luck's influence mean for public policy? Conservatives, worried that an honest admission of luck's role would sanction economy-killing egalitarianism, always end up playing down luck. Liberals, while deeply concerned with luck, have often been unwilling to ease the burden of bad luck in ways that preserve the best of capitalist innovation and the virtues of individual responsibility.
Try too hard to wipe out the inequities spawned by luck, and you banish luck's societal benefits and go down the road of communism. But harness a healthy awe for luck, and you expand the bounds of empathy in ways that make a living wage for poor workers and great schools for poor children national imperatives. What we're led to is the public agenda missing today, built around passionate commitments - by both liberals and conservatives - to (1) equal opportunity and (2) a minimally decent life, achieved in ways that harness market forces for public purposes.
Don't take my word for it. The surprising truth is that conservative icon Milton Friedman and liberal philosopher John Rawls agree that luck's ubiquity compels these commitments. Friedman once told me his concern for luck's reach had inspired his call for a decent minimum for the unlucky. He fathered what became the earned-income tax credit, which delivers $35 billion a year in wage subsidies to the working poor. Rawls, apostle of the just society, cheered this.
Friedman added that there is no principled way to decide what the decent minimum should be; it's a political question that depends on what taxes we're willing to pay. Rawls basically said "make it good" - but not so generous that taxes hurt growth.
But this debate isn't being framed explicitly today by either side.
So the conservative view of the decent minimum comes to this: "You're lucky to be in America; you're lucky to have a job; you're lucky to have the emergency room." A better idea would be "basic health coverage and $9 to $10 an hour, without putting the full burden of this on employers." Turns out we can have such a society for a penny on the national dollar (1% of G.D.P.), and still leave government smaller (21% of G.D.P.) than it was under President Ronald Reagan.
Can't we shake hands and call it a deal?
The anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist won't debate what luck means for policy; he says luck is irrelevant (though he seems like a lucky guy).
By contrast, most Hollywood stars don't gripe about taxes the way many wealthy Americans do. My theory is that these supertalents are more sensitive to the portion of their wealth that's attributable to luck. Yes, there's hard work and persistence and making your own breaks, but the voice, the presence, the body (well, minus certain modern upgrades) clearly come from God.
As polling shows, average Americans agree luck is central. And religious conservatives say that responding to luck's dominion is a way to honor the divine mystery that put us here. With a little luck, that means Democrats may find they can make America more just while grounding their agenda in values that can win.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Matt Miller is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of "The 2 Percent Solution." Maureen Dowd is on book leave.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company