Random chance governs far more of our lives than most of us are comfortable admitting. Fully appreciating the influence of luck on life chances should lead us to rethink our economic and political institutions from the bottom up.

A homeless man sleeps in front of a luxury auto dealership in San Francisco, California, on June, 10, 2016. (Josh Edelson / AFP via Getty Images)

Review of The Random Factor: How Chance and Luck Profoundly Shape Our Lives and the World around Us by Mark Robert Rank (University of California Press, 2024)

In November 1939, Adolf Hitler traveled to Munich to give his big annual speech at the Bürgerbräukeller — the site of his failed “Beer Hall Putsch” sixteen years earlier. Usually, these anniversary speeches ran to almost two hours. This time, though, the führer confined himself to ninety minutes of ranting so he could arrange an earlier train back to Berlin.

Twelve minutes after he and all the other big Nazi leaders left the beer hall, a bomb went off. It killed seven people and wounded several dozen others. When he was told about the bombing later that night by his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, Hitler responded, “A man has to be lucky.”

While it’s impossible to know for sure what would have happened if Hitler and his key lieutenants had died two years before Nazi Germany went to war with the United States and the Soviet Union and began to implement the Final Solution, it’s hard not to feel like the human race as a whole was extremely unlucky not to find out.

In his new book The Random Factor: How Chance and Luck Profoundly Shape Our Lives and the World around Us, social scientist Mark Robert Rank recounts this dramatic episode and others to illustrate that “luck and chance” govern more of our collective lives than most of us, most of the time, are quite comfortable admitting. But much of the power of the book comes from Rank’s discussion of “chance and luck” operating at a far more mundane level in the lives of ordinary people. Rank makes a strong case, in particular, that whether a person winds up in poverty is largely the result of factors outside their control.

Rank’s discussion of these mundane ways that randomness affects people’s life chances ground both the most important and interesting parts of the book and the parts I found the most frustrating. There are times when Rank could have benefited from both greater conceptual precision and a more expansive imagination about the possibilities for a more equal society. But even at its weakest, the book is a good starting point to help us think more clearly about what he calls “our constant companion” — the random factor.

Randomness and Clarity

In a section at the end of the first chapter, called “Defining Our Terms,” Rank says that the terms “luck and chance” are “generally terms that are applied to the individual” while “random and randomness are generally used when referring to the wider social order.” Luck is “typically viewed through the lens of good or bad fortune,” while chance is a “more neutral” concept.

Fair enough — but what does he mean by “chance”?

Here he says several things. Chance is “outside of the individual’s control.” It’s “random with respect to the specific individual affected.” (“In other words,” he clarifies, “the individual encountering the [chance] event could just as easily have been someone else.”) And it’s “often the result of a happenstance coming together of separate factors.”

Whether a person winds up in poverty is largely the result of factors outside their control.

But are all of these ideas a package deal? And how do they relate to Rank’s own illustrations? For example, the time Hitler left the Bürgerbräukeller was under his control — even though it’s undeniably true that he “got lucky” in the sense that he had no way of knowing his decision would work out so well for him.

I’ll grumpily note here that, as the book goes on, Rank very frequently mixes and matches these terms in ways that don’t really fulfill the promises of this terminological note. Nor is this the biggest problem with the book’s terminology.

In later chapters, he often speaks of the intrusion of luck/chance/randomness into the categories of sociological analysis by talking about “ripples of randomness” within the “wider currents that push our lives forward.” In explaining that idea, he says a lot of things like:

Sociologists often focus on the influence of factors such as race, class, and gender upon life outcomes. Luck and chance might be viewed as contradictory to this largely deterministic take on the world.

In other places, though, he seems to be eager to emphasize that race, gender, and class background are, by his own definition, matters of “luck and chance” if anything is. No one chooses to be born to the Walton family or born in a refugee camp. It’s just a matter of good or bad luck.

Part of the problem here is that Rank is using terms like “luck,” “chance,” “randomness,” and so on to refer to two very different things without clearly distinguishing them. Something can be a matter of “luck” as opposed to being under our control. Or something can be “random” as opposed to being determined by bigger-picture factors.

Not only are these not the same thing, but many thinkers would argue that something can only be meaningfully under our control if it’s not caused by deterministic chains of cause and effect. Whether or not they’re right, the two concepts certainly come apart.

More clarity on these points would have made it a stronger book. But the place where a bit more philosophical reflection would have done The Random Factor the most good comes at the end, when Rank asks, essentially — if our constant companion isn’t going anywhere, what can we do about it?

Randomness and Justice

This in turn divides into two questions: What can the collective “we” do about it, and what can we do about as individuals?

Rank’s answer to the second question is eminently sensible. Becoming more aware of the influence of “ripples of randomness” on our lives should both make us blame ourselves less when we don’t succeed in our goals and make us more persistent about continuing to press forward. Didn’t get the big job you were hoping for? Instead of assuming that the applicant pool was full of candidates more qualified than you and that you should just give up on trying for jobs like that, you can take some comfort in the distinct possibility that whoever got it benefited from unpredictable happenstance. Perhaps the head of the hiring committee was tired and cranky when he looked at your application, but he’d had his second cup of coffee just before he looked at the résumé of the person he hired.

Your chances of benefiting from a bit of good luck in the future are better if you keep sending out applications. “Persistence,” he quotes Stephen Marche as saying, “is the siege you lay on fortune.” I certainly have no quarrel with any of that. (World War II, by the way, might not have happened — or at least not in exactly the way it did — if a young Adolf Hitler had taken this advice. As Rank discusses, after Hitler was turned down from arts school the first time, he got discouraged and missed an opportunity to have his application reevaluated.)

The core of Rank’s answer to the question of how the collective “we” can insulate ourselves from the damage of bad fortune is also a reasonable one. He thinks an awareness of the way factors outside of our control that can throw people into poverty should lead us to support a more generous social safety net, and that awareness of the role of chance in determining where people land in the economic hierarchy should lead us to find ways to give people more opportunities to rise through that hierarchy.

Those are certainly good things as far as they go. But giving our constant companion his due should, I think, lead us to question capitalist hierarchies in a much more fundamental way than anything Rank seems to be willing to entertain.

We live, as he’s well aware, in a grotesquely unequal society. Commentators coming from very different worldviews can converge on that much — the United States, for example, is the only developed country that throws most of its citizens to the wolves of the market to meet their health care needs. Americans die from trying to ration out their insulin. This is a society where some people worry about how they would come up with the money to fix the car they need to drive to work while other people take private space flights.

But acknowledging these grim truths about our starting point tells us very little about how much equality we should be aiming for. What makes the inequalities we have unjust, and how much equality would we need for justice to have been achieved?

One consideration Rank acknowledges is that inequalities are unjust if the floor for economic security is set too low. There are certain things — like free resupplies of insulin, for example — that everyone deserves. But is that where we should stop? Do we have reasons to care about the size of the gap between the floor and the ceiling, quite apart from the height of the floor?

Rank is attuned to the ways that poverty can make core rights and liberties less meaningful. He talks, for example, about how cash-strapped criminal defendants get worse defenses, and how people with lower-status jobs where it’s harder to get time off are less likely to make it to the polls on Election Day.

But what about the potential injustices bound up with economic inequality, even where the floor isn’t set at a place we’d call “poverty”? Even “middle-class” office workers exert vastly less political influence than the wealthy, and when we turn from the “political” sphere to the workplace, the power imbalances built into capitalism become far more dramatic. Most people who directly participate in the economy have no realistic choice except to sell their working hours to those individuals with the resources to start businesses and employ others — and in practice that means that most human beings have very little power or autonomy at the workplaces where they spend half their waking hours. As the picture Rank paints throughout the book should make clear, whether you end up in the working class or the capitalist class is due in very great part to “the random factor.”

Most human beings have very little power or autonomy at the workplaces where they spend half their waking hours.

He discusses the political philosopher John Rawls’s famous thought experiment about “the veil of ignorance,” from which Rawls draws more radically egalitarian conclusions than Rank himself seems willing to countenance. Rawls says that a just society is one that rational (and otherwise well-informed) agents would sign on to if they were trying to maximize their own interests without knowing who they would be in the society they were designing.

They wouldn’t know whether they would be black or white, for example, so they wouldn’t endorse racial discrimination. Similarly, since they wouldn’t know whether they’d be born into a rich family or a poor one — and they wouldn’t know if, should they be born into a poor family, they’d have the particular cocktail of skills that would make it easier for them to be upwardly mobile through the class structure — they would have reason to be suspicious of economic inequality (even apart from concerns about the position of the floor).

Rawls thinks agents designing a society from behind the veil of ignorance might nevertheless allow some inequality, in exchange for greater economic efficiency. But in navigating such tradeoffs they’d be guided by the principle that inequalities need to earn their keep by (a) making the better-off positions available to every qualified applicant under conditions of meaningful equality of opportunity and (b) only allowing inequalities, even inequalities that satisfy condition (a), when whoever is worst off would still be better off than they would be under a more equal alternative.

The resulting loophole for acceptable inequalities is much narrower than many readers of Rawls over the decades have realized. Rawls himself, who certainly wasn’t a radical firebrand by personal inclination, had reluctantly come to realize by the end of his life that even a form of capitalism modified by a generous welfare state couldn’t meet his demanding standard.

Meanwhile, one of Rawls’s most important critics, the Marxist philosopher G. A. Cohen, argued that even this loophole was too large for it to be appropriate to call any arrangement that passed Rawls’s test “justice.” Cohen acknowledged that economic efficiency matters, for much the same reason Rawls thought it did — the standard of living of even the lower classes — but he thought we should keep a more demanding notion of egalitarian justice as our north star.

Disenfranchising Our Constant Companion

Rank criticizes Rawls from the opposite direction. He’s fine with condition (a) and realizes that fulfilling it would require more assistance for poor kids looking to get ahead, but he balks at condition (b). He says that “many Americans,” steeped as we are in an “ethos of individualism,” wouldn’t put such demanding limitations on the slice of the pie that could be claimed by the successful, even when we were making such decisions from behind the veil of ignorance.

This objection, for the record, trades on a misreading of Rawls. The idea of the veil of ignorance is not that just institutions are ones that would be endorsed from behind the veil by agents acting on any old set of ideological biases. It’s that institutions are just if they would be endorsed from behind the veil by rational people who were trying to maximize their own interests. Otherwise, none of the standard consequences of the thought experiment follow. Some people might be so committed to white supremacy, for example, that they’d sign off on racial apartheid even if they weren’t sure that they themselves would be white. The important question is whether anyone’s interests are being illegitimately disregarded.

More importantly, though, I’m not sure why Rank thinks what “many Americans” currently think should be the hard limit for what a just version of our society would look like. Isn’t part of the job of an author trying to get his readers to think in new ways, as Rank is in The Random Factor, and to encourage those readers to adopt a different ethos if the old one no longer makes sense?

But the philosopher I really wish Rank had read is Cohen. The ideal of egalitarian justice Cohen endorsed was “socialist equality of opportunity.” While he acknowledged that, in practice, we have to balance this against other relevant values (such as efficiency), and how much progress we can make in this direction might have limits at any given stage of history, Cohen’s core idea here is that inequalities are unjust to whatever extent that they’re outside the control of whoever gets the short end of the stick.

Taking this simple and radical idea seriously would mean opposing the system of private ownership of the means of production. Why, after all, should someone be able to inherit control of a business because of the family they happened to be born into, and why should people with worse luck have to follow that person’s orders all day at work?

That’s a radical idea. It goes against the “ethos” that Rank thinks is deeply baked into Americans’ consciousness. But if we don’t believe our constant companion should have a vote in determining the distribution of wealth and power, it’s an idea Americans will have to embrace.

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