Politics is permeated by luck. Political action is messy by nature, involving the intersecting lives and acts of many people and institutions. As a consequence, policy initiatives and political gambits succeed or fail not simply on the basis of good intentions and wise planning, but because of the myriad contingencies that aﬀect any large-scale endeavour. A strong rain in a swing state can aﬀect the turnout of one set of partisans rather than another at an election. International crises determine the options open to political leaders. Domestic policy reform succeeds or fails because chance alignments of interests and judgements of public sentiment provide either the force to drive past obstacles, or make those obstacles impassable. And, more controversially, a general’s head cold might cause misjudgements at a crucial battle, leading to the end of an empire rather than its extension. To say that politics, then, is a domain of luck is to state a triviality.
Politics is a branch of life, and like all life it is inhabited by ﬂeeting contingency as much (or more) as inevitability. But politics is not just impersonal poll results, military successes, and policy changes. Politics is an activity of persons – persons with moral concerns and moral character – and it is impelled and sustained by their concern for their values, goals, and reputations. To speak of political luck in relation to political agency is not just to point in the direction of the contingency of outcome, or fortuna, to use Machiavelli’s famous term, but in the direction of evaluation, of both the outcomes and the agents who produce them. Politicians who insist, despite the disastrous news of the day, that they shall be vindicated by history, gesture hopefully in this direction, that a lucky outcome will save their
legacy; whereas the losers of history seem already to have received luck’s judgement. To return to Machiavelli, the question is not just whether a politician’s virtù, or skill, can dominate fortuna, but whether fortuna, for its part, can determine virtù. And yet here we seem back to a triviality. Of course, the politician’s
hopes and fears are well founded. As a matter of brute fact, we heap rewards on the lucky winners of historical gambles (if only posthumously) and scorn on the losers. Some of these rewards and punishments are as direct as triumphal laurels and ritual humiliations. But they also take subtler form, through a form of cognitive error: the over-attribution of success or failure to the inherent qualities and aptitudes of the actor, rather than the situation. While Napoleon may be no hero to his valet, his heroism in the eyes of the many confounds success with virtue. These observations about our social practices and biases in awarding
political honour and disgrace – in reﬂecting political luck, in this thin sense – mirror our practices in interpersonal morality. The twin papers by Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel that launched the discussion of luck in morality can be seen as trying to extract strong normative conclusions from these sociological commonplaces, moving from the is of moral psychology to the ought of moral evaluation. In particular, both Williams and Nagel sought to demonstrate, or at least illuminate, a number of related theses (not all clearly laid out, to be sure). These theses include at least the following: