The Birth Lottery

15 January 2009


“Quand je considère la petite durée de ma vie absorbée dans l’éternité précédente et suivante (memoria hospitis unius diei praetereuntis), le petit espace que je remplis et même que je vois, abîmé dans l’infinie immensité des espaces que j’ignore et qui m’ignorent, je m’effraie et m’étonne de me voir ici plutôt que là, car il n’ya point de raison pour quoi à présent plutôt que lors.”


“When I consider the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which comes before and after – as the remembrance of a guest that tarrieth but a day – the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then.”

It is indeed astonishing to find oneself here rather than there, now rather than then. Pascal is especially remembered for expressing his consternation at finding himself thrown into the world (i.e., the concern with “thrownness” did not originate with Heidegger). It is frighteningly arbitrary, or, as is said today, “random.” And one ought to be astonished not only at being here rather than there, but also at being this rather than that, or of one condition rather than another.

William Blake — himself no mean social critic — put it all more poetically (as is to be expected from a poet):

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born.
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.
We are led to believe a lie
When we see not through the eye
Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light.
God appears, and God is light
To those poor souls who dwell in night,
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.

This is one of my favorite passages from Blake, and I can recite it by heart, not from effort of memorization, but from having returned to it time and again over the years. However impossible it is for me to inhabit the world of Blake’s imagination, this speaks to be quite directly for reasons that I cannot articulate.

William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827)

William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827)

For Blake, there was the ultimate promise of divine intervention. At the end of the world, all would be put right. For us, there is no such consolation. We must take the fact of the matter at its hardest point or betray ourselves by living in untruth.

It would be humorous, were it not so pathetic, to see how many people tracing their genealogy look eagerly for some signs of privilege in their family tree. Even Americans, who have little love for royalty or the idea of royalty, seem to take a perverse joy in finding some titled aristocrat connected to their lineage through the most tortuous and tenuous of relations.

The fact of the matter is that in the past — up through the nineteenth century for most regions of the world — the vast majority of people (90 percent or more) were anonymous peasants engaged in subsistence farming. While the industrial revolution profoundly changed societies around the world, since the advent of industrialization the vast majority of people (90 percent or more) are working class wage earners. In other words, most of us are unlikely to find an ancestry of wealth, privilege, or title.

While much has changed in history over the past thousand years or so, truth be told, much has not changed. The more things change, the more things remain the same. Human nature is durable, and human societies grow out of human nature. Indeed, society is a fractal that emerges from innumerable repetitions of the same, essentially simple, unit, and, for the purposes of society, the initial unit for iteration is the individual person.

What has not changed since the time of the very different civilization of the Middle Ages, with its rigid system of feudalism? What has not changed is that the political order of the world is run by a small number of elites who represent the interests of a small number of well-positioned and well-connected persons. This is not a conspiracy theory, it is historical fact, although a fact upon which most do not dwell. Why bother, after all? Nothing will change.

The hold that elites have over the world has not been diminished by the progress of industrialization, urbanization, and democratization. The historical trend, on the contrary, has been the opposite. As time passes, the elites become a progressively smaller minority. This happens for simple demographic reasons.

At present, the world is politically divided into nation-states. Each nation-state has its ruling class. There are perhaps a hundred or more people with real power in each state — more in some, fewer in others. There are fewer than two hundred nation-states. Do the math. That isn’t a lot of people. Even if we allow a thousand influential persons per nation-state, it is still a small number in comparison to the six billion or so of the rest of us. (Specifically, the elites in our more generous calculation above represent a third of a hundredth of a percent of world population. Expressed as a decimal, it is 0.003333…%)

the cover of yesterday's FT. Chelsea Clinton will likely not end up cleaning toilets for a living, and the person who does clean her toilet is not likely to have a daughter who becomes US Secretary of State.

Keeping it in the family: the cover of yesterday's FT. Chelsea Clinton will likely not end up cleaning toilets for a living, and the person who does clean her toilet is not likely to have a daughter who becomes US Secretary of State.

The essential institutions of government can be maintained by a skeleton crew of elites even while population expands. As population relentlessly expands, the small number of people with real power expands at a much slower rate, and as a consequence it represents a progressively smaller slice of the world’s population.

One could only be reasonably angry with the birth lottery (if one is inclined to be angry about it at all) if there were some kind of plan, human or divine, involved it. But nothing could be further from the truth. This is simply the way the world is. Privilege emerged in history by the actions of a few energetic men, and it has been maintained by their heirs who find it pleasant. Thus, from the naturalistic perspective, there is no reason to be angry about the birth lottery. However, while there is no reason to be angry about it, there is also no reason to be happy about it. Like any other feature of the world, it is what it is.

My remarks here on the birth lottery are obviously inadequate. I should return to the topic. What I wrote above about privilege having its origins in the efforts of a few energetic men invites a treatment in terms such as those Locke used to defend private property in his second essay on civil government. And such a treatment invites a critique such as that to which Rousseau, and many others, subjected Locke.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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