The difference between the political parties is usually defined by how a person views the role of government. Those on the Left want a powerful and magnanimous group of officials, operating with society’s best interests in mind, correcting for systemic disparities. Their conservative counterparts want less interference from any authorities because they believe that prosperity is best acquired when everyone is free to work hard and takes care of themselves. By extension, when a person stumbles or thrives, the Left considers all the ways in which society contributed to their status, while the Right pins the results—both good and bad—firmly on the shoulders of the person in question. This is, of course, a simplified explanation, but this battle in all its iterations is a thread that permeates much political debate. However there is another component of this timeless discussion, a thing which to one side is as real and inevitable as death and taxes, while to the other it is a crutch for the weak: luck.
Luck is a polarizing concept. Some find it to be a statistical fact; things are more or less apt to happen, and we are all living at the whim of the odds. Others believe that hard work makes up for probabilities. The latter is an understandable position; nobody wants to believe that something for which they worked assiduously was only achieved through circumstance, and moreover they wouldn’t want to perpetuate the idea that one should just sit around and wait for good things to happen. Thus conservatives dismiss the notion of luck out of hand, taking a similar line to Thomas Jefferson who once quipped, “I’m a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”
There’s no doubt that hard work is a necessary factor in terms of success, or as Ben Franklin phrased it: “Diligence is the mother of good luck.” It is impossible to lay someone’s accomplishments solely at the feet of fortune. Nobody wakes up and discovers that they are Michael Phelps or JK Rowling or Alan Turing or Muhammad Ali. It’s not a happy accident when someone who trains or practices or hones their skills over the course of years becomes successful.
Nevertheless, luck does play a role, even if it is only a tiny one. For example, the aforementioned individuals took advantage of favorable genetics, and through hard work, accomplished their goals. But someone like Phelps, say, is no more responsible for having a body built for swimming (long, lean body, huge feet and hands, large lungs) than I am for being prematurely bald and left-handed. And people who succeed in academic or creative ventures are making the most of a predisposition, resulting from a cocktail of genetics and experience. Now, these people still deserve to be praised because they’ve maximized their talent and earned their accolades. But they did, in some respects, benefit from the genetic lottery. In short, understanding the role of luck doesn’t mitigate a person’s worth or the significance of their accomplishments.
Luck, however, is not limited to matters of talent distribution. It is a key factor in someone’s life. Herein lies a principle disagreement between conservatives and liberals. Consider: I’m lucky. I’m lucky to have been born in the United States during a period of relative peace and economic stability to a pair of dedicated, hard-working parents. I wanted for nothing; I was loved and raised well. Any of my meager achievements can be traced directly to this auspicious beginning. I have worked hard in my life, but I’m under no delusions that the difference between me and the man I saw in the street with a cardboard sign is merely elbow grease.
There are innumerable facets in life which are beyond one’s control. For starters, as I’ve said, there’s that genetic lottery. In the same way that a person can be fortunate to find themselves equipped with explosive athletic ability, good looks, a high intellectual ceiling, or a perpetually healthy mind and body, others—through no fault of their own—are feeble, homely, prone to illness, predisposed to addiction, or any of the myriad ailments foisted upon people by faulty DNA. This matters. It’s not to say that everyone can’t be successful, but it is objectively accurate to say that certain genetic endowments increase the likelihood of success. To put it another way: some people have to work much, much harder than others.
Another similar component is what has been called the “lottery of birth.” Similarly to genetics, the environment into which one arrives is significant. Surely, the average child born today in Flint, Michigan is going to have a rougher go of it than the average child born in, say, Newton, Massachusetts. It is foolish to pretend otherwise. Again, a child born in Flint or some other destitute destination can still achieve greatness, but they are starting at a distinct disadvantage. To use the cliché life-as-race metaphor, the kid in Newton is beginning the competition, running—or perhaps driving—downhill with the wind at their back, while the Flint child is facing an arduous uphill climb. The finish line is reachable for both, but who needs to work harder? It’s not an accident that the outcome for the affluent child is to be expected, while success stories out of impoverished places are outliers—the stuff of Lifetime movies and inspirational books. (And of course immigration is no different. As we speak there is a child being born in San Diego, California and another being born mere miles away in Tijuana, Mexico. Consider how significantly different their lives are likely to be and then consider the tiny geographical difference in their birthplace. Here, luck will be decisive.)
A study on upward mobility by Pew research in 2015 examined intergenerational elasticity (IGE), specifically measuring “the strength of the relationship between the income of parents and that of children.” Their findings were surprising, only because of the extreme discrepancy between children born to wealthy parents and those born into penury. They found that there was a “persistence of advantage” from one generation to the next, with wealthier families perpetuating wealth, while the underprivileged struggled to achieve modest, if any, economic gains compared to that of their parents. The article states:
…children raised in families that are far apart on the income distribution can expect very different economic futures when they become adults…children raised in low-income families will probably have very low incomes as adults, while children raised in high-income families can anticipate very high incomes as adults. The differences are extreme: The expected income of children raised in well-off families (90th percentile) is about 200 percent larger than the expected income of children raised in poor families (10th percentile) and about 75 percent larger than that of children raised in middle-class families (50th percentile).
These data are a testament to the age-old assertion from the Left that classism perpetuates itself. It almost perfectly supports that other trite saying that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” In this case, the former is certainly true, and the poor may not become worse off, but they tend to stagnate in their social strata.
The realities of classism are generally accepted phenomena. What differs is the approach to dealing with them. Conservatives don’t believe in lingering on these realities because it creates a culture of “victimhood,” where rather than work hard, people adopt a woe-is-me mentality, blaming the world for their problems. This is unfair. Nobody is saying that people should feel sorry for themselves. What the Left is lobbying for is an understanding that not everyone has the same opportunities. There are objective reasons as to why some groups tend to stagnate and others tend to thrive. And while hard work can be the equalizer, it is inequitable to put the onus on the impoverished person to work harder, rather than on the system which fostered their impoverishment.
This understanding permeates nearly all policy prescriptions put forward by progressives. Things like a higher minimum wage, free or affordable college, government assistance, and labor training programs are all designed with these inequities in mind. We ought to make it easier for people to survive when they work two jobs, to get an education, to get job training, or to—at the very least—have enough for the bare essentials. None of these come from a desire to, as conservatives would have you believe, give away “free stuff.” The goal is pull up the bottom and to give people who are willing to work a fighting chance.
Everyone should work hard to achieve what they want in life. The role of government should be to ensure that nobody needs to break their back to survive while others, by dint of nothing, live luxuriously and barely lift a finger. We can recognize that some people are lucky and some are not, and we can collectively work to minimize the disparities of fortune.