Why being born in the UK is (almost) like winning the lottery of life

In a campaign event a few days ago, Conservative leadership candidate Jeremy Hunt asserted that being born in the UK is ‘winning the lottery of life’. This comment attracted predictable sneers on social media, critics citing things like austerity, food banks, Windrush etc. I didn’t read one defence of the comment.

As with my last post, logical thought makes the arguments of Hunt’s critics difficult to maintain. There is a relevant thought experiment associated with the political philosopher John Rawls. Rawls advanced a concept known as the veil of ignorance; this requires us to evaluate societies on the basis of the presumption that we would occupy a random place in a given society. We can take this a step further and ask which society, of all those ever created by humans, we would prefer to inhabit were we to be assigned a random position. I forget whether Rawls or one of his aficionados phrased it in precisely these terms; it doesn’t really matter.

I’ve asked this question of colleagues and students over the years. I have yet to meet anyone who wished to chance societies such as ancient Rome or medieval Mongolia. The most adventurous have preferred societies in Western Europe during post-war boom decades (though one may query whether they reflected on conditions for women, LGBT+ etc.). The vast majority of people, including myself, would prefer to be assigned to a contemporary Western society; Scandinavian countries are popular.

The UK may not boast Scandinavian-like wealth and equality, but it is hardly far from these standards; it is much closer than the vast majority of contemporary and historical societies. Given more enlightened attitudes towards some minorities/certain freedoms, it is not inconceivable that some would choose the UK in reply to Rawls’ question. Even if we have problems like poverty and mistreatment of minorities, these are minor in comparison to issues in most contemporary and historical societies. Reflecting on the fact that citizens of developed countries like the UK are a very small fraction of the 100 billion humans that have ever lived, Hunt’s comment is not unreasonable (even if we are not talking about a ‘6-figure’ win).

This is a central paradox of today’s politics; most implicitly think that today’s developed societies are the best which have ever existed, yet many who live in these societies are very unhappy (even in Scandinavia!). The answer lies in relative deprivation, a concept used by social scientists to describe lack of means to live the life which is customary in a given society. Perhaps relative deprivation should be the topic of another post…

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