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Does Good Fortune Explain Big Fortunes?

If the wealthy owe their wealth to luck, how should society respond? Philosophy’s ‘luck egalitarians’ are battling to get that question considered.

By Sam Pizzigati

Health, Luck, and JusticeA review of Shlomi Segall, Health, Luck, and Justice. Princeton University Press, 2010. 239 pp.

The unnerving spiraling of inequality over recent decades has had at least one consequence of redeeming social value. Philosophers are now thinking and talking, perhaps more than ever before, about “distributive justice.”

Some fascinating new strains of distributive justice thought are emerging from all this contemplating. One of the most intriguing is exploring the role of luck in determining who ends up richly rewarded — and who doesn’t.

Simple “brute” luck, one band of hardy philosophers is maintaining, often defines who “succeeds.” The successful, of course, like to point to their own individual talents. But don’t they owe those talents to the luck of being born to parents with good genes?

Indeed, many of us may owe our very lives to the luck of where we live. A girl born in Japan will now live to an average 86 years. A girl born in Malawi will beat her country’s average if she makes it to 36.

Philosophers who talk about this role of luck — they call themselves “luck egalitarians” — generally believe that society ought to endeavor to compensate for all inequalities that reflect conditions that we can’t reasonably attribute to individuals themselves.

Sometimes this luck egalitarianism spills over into our public discourse. Billionaire investor Warren Buffett and Bill Gates Sr., the father of the world’s richest individual, have invoked the spirit of luck egalitarianism, for instance, to rally support for the federal estate tax.

Wealthy Americans, Gates has argued, would not be wealthy if they had been born in “a country of society-wide abject poverty.” These wealthy need to give back, via the estate tax, to the society that made their good fortune possible.

Substantial inequalities that reflect brute luck, luck egalitarians believe, simply do not measure up as just. We ought to do whatever we can, as a society, to mitigate these inequalities. Stiff estate taxes on grand fortunes represent just one example of what we could —and ought to — be doing.

But if a just society has a responsibility to mitigate inequalities that reflect circumstances individuals can’t control, what responsibility does a just society have to individuals in dire circumstances who have created their own fate?

A motorist drives recklessly into an accident. A smoker puffs away into cancer. Does society owe these people medical treatment if they can’t afford it on their own? Critics of luck egalitarianism have pounced on this question. They have, they believe, the luck egalitarians hoisted on their own petards.

How can we take seriously, these critics argue, a philosophy that would deny treatment to an accident victim? The luck egalitarian case for moving aggressively against inequality, this attack suggests, rests on a shaky and suspect philosophical foundation.

signupDo the critics have a point? Should we disregard the luck egalitarians? Not so fast, says Hebrew University of Jerusalem philosopher Shlomi Segall in Health, Luck, and Justice, his carefully — and clearly — argued rejoinder to the critics who would have us dismiss the luck egalitarian case against inequality.

In this just-published new volume, Segall answers the reckless driver challenge head-on. He walks us through a logic train that both upholds the basic core assumptions of luck egalitarianism and honors the common-sense necessity of helping all those who need care.

We won’t track that logic train here, in this limited space. But we will urge anyone interested in thinking deep about distribution and justice to pick up this fine new offering from Shlomi Segall and take a ride with him.

Sam Pizzigati, an associate fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies, edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality.

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