Feb 21, 1914
THE man we were talking to made no attempt to deny that it was most absurd that a law should be in force which could award (we do not, of course, prejudge the result of the appeal) £13,000 to a “common informer,” who had not informed anybody of anything they did not know before. Had the ﬁrm of which Sir Stuart Samuel is a member been registered as a private company—a merely formal proceeding—and had Sir Stuart, instead of being a “partner,” been a “director,” even managing director and practically sole proprietor, he might have made as many contracts as he chose with the Government, and thereafter walked himself stiff in the division lobbies, and nobody could or would have thought of taking action against him. Our friend made no attempt to deny the unfairness or the illogicality of the whole proceeding. “But,” said he, “I should hate to see the privileges of the common informer restricted.” The chance of making a sudden and undeserved pile by unearthing some obsolete law was, he contended, a picturesque thing that added colour to the drab of our life. Provided, said he, the money came out of pockets which could afford it, he would like to see the performance repeated at intervals infrequent enough to prevent its interest staling.
We cannot quite accept that view. We do not desire to see any more members of Parliament bled for inadvertence. Nor does Mr. Bird’s good fortune seem to us any more picturesque than the success which occasionally befalls one of those third-rate attorneys who make a profession of bringing libel actions against wealthy newspapers. The luck that appeals to us must have a spontaneous element, which is lacking in Mr. Bird’s case; it must not be a calculated spoliation of someone else, no matter how wealthy. But all the same we quite understand our friend’s feeling. We all of us, even those who disapprove of lotteries and sweepstakes and Monte Carlo, feel a thrill of pleasure when an acquaintance who has invested a sovereign which he cannot properly afford wins a thumping great prize in a lottery. We all feel pleasantly titillated when we hear that the assistant-sub-deputy-postmaster of Little Chortlehampton, a hard-working man with a large family and a garden, of which he is very fond, has won £40,000 in the Calcutta Sweepstake. And there lives not a man with soul so
dead that he does not respond to news of treasure-trove, and deem it rather a pity that when an agricultural labourer, even though he be a. drunkard and in every way undesirable, digs up a potful of Roman gold coins, the Crown steps in and takes the lion’s share of the booty. The tales which most strongly appeal to youth are those in which young heroes, who by all the rules of propriety ought to be in the City scratching ledgers, bolt from home, get wrecked on desert islands, discover rusty iron bolts afﬁxed to ﬂat stones, pull them up and plunge knee-deep into jewels and ingots long ago buried by pirates, who got hanged before they could revisit their “cache.” And who has not in his time dreamed of securing an easy competence by rescuing a millionaire’s perambulator from a charging cab-horse, jumping off a Thames steamboat after a rich old lady with a spite against her near relations, or unexpectedly encountering an uncle, formerly a scapegrace, who disappeared years ago to Australia, and has since amassed a large sum in sheep? Man’s interest in luck is as universal as his interest in love; and we are not sure that one need be deplored any more than the other.
We do not, of course, suggest that the area of the operations of chance should not be diminished. On the contrary, all human progress may, in a sense, be regarded as a campaign against luck—that is to say against the kind of luck over which we can exercise control at all; for the luck of having more brains than one’s neighbour, and so on, is beyond our scope of regulation. In the lives of our earliest ancestors luck played a large diurnal part. Our ancestor Pongo ambushed behind a rock, and a fat buck came up in front of him; our ancestor Bongo ambushed behind a rock, and a bear came up behind him. Even in the elementary daily business of getting his dinner a man did not know whether he was going to get a meal or become a meal. With the growth of settled social habits, and amongst them that of storing food, these extremes of luck were abolished. Today, if we go into one of Messrs. Lyons’ shops for a beefsteak, we are morally certain that we shall not get “in the soup” ourselves. As cooperation grew good fortune and bad fortune were proportionately communalised. Today there are an enormous number of departments of life in which we can act with comparative certainty; in which, if we do something, we know that another speciﬁed thing will follow almost as surely as that the sun will rise tomorrow. Most modern legislation is legislation against bad luck. The Insurance Act is an attack on the bad luck of falling ill without having the money to look after oneself properly. The Trade Boards Act (to take a less obvious case) alleviated the bad luck of people who, through no fault of their own, were not getting a living wage. In diminishing some people’s bad luck you are usually bound to restrict other people’s good luck. Our own landlord, who keeps himself in cigars on a large portion of our earnings, is exceedingly lucky in having had an ancestor who bought the site of our house without the least expectation of a vast rise in the value of the land. The annexation of rent by the community of which we are humble members will prevent lucky speculations in land. “The nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange”—to use the good old phrase—means a deliberate and wholesale invasion of the province of luck, and so does the democratisation of the political machine. But the motive behind such changes is in very few people jealousy of the lucky man; it is indignation on behalf of the unlucky one. “If ye do not work neither shall ye eat” is not half so popular a sentiment as “If ye do work ye shall be guaranteed plenty to eat.” But the fulﬁlment of the promise incidentally implies, at any rate to a large extent, the execution of the threat. In no conceivable state will luck be completely eliminated; there will, for example, always be cases of men, not necessarily corruptly, getting jobs because they happen at fortunate moments to come across the individuals or communities who have the conferring of jobs. But the State of the future will have less room for luck, both bad and good, than the State of the present; and since the existence of one on a large scale implies that of the other, we cannot regret this.
At the same time life would lose some of its salt if sudden public strokes of undeserved good fortune were entirely to cease happening. In our heart of hearts we do not want luck to be completely eliminated. We want to get rid of bad luck without getting rid of good luck. We like these occasional windfalls to come to quite undeserving people, and if these people happen to be ourselves so much the better. There is something unattractive about a world where the expected always happens; and there is, alas! as much if not more of romance about the fool who “strikes oil” by accident as about the genius who succeeds because his natural endowments compel success. The spirit which prevents the long ascendancy of a deterministic theory of the universe is the spirit which makes us hanker after a society where, within reasonable limits, it will still be possible to say “Anything may happen.” Men, however sanely they may develop their social arrangements, will continue, in their private affairs, to hope for the beneﬁcent intervention of some god from outside the everyday machine. A vital and a permanent psycho logical truth underlies the customary democratic form of toasting a man. When two Englishmen are drinking to each other in a public-house they do not say: “May you secure the reward to which your industry, utility and virtue justly entitle you.” What they say is—“Here’s luck!”