WEALTH AND HISTORY

Wealth and indeed life itself are transient: the man for whom this magnificent château at St. Loup-sur-Thouet was built is now long dead. Much later, and in another country, my own great-great-grandfather was also a very rich man. He didn't own a château but he did own an iron foundry: Ellacott's in Plymouth. As far as I know, they cast the iron for Brunel's 1859 Royal Albert Bridge across the Tamar at Saltash.


Then he made some extremely unwise investments and lost all his money. His daughter Florence – my great-grandmother – reacted entirely understandably. She joined the Communist Party. Her children (including my grandmother) were on the hard left of the Labour Party. My father started out on the left of the Conservative Party but was on the right of it by the time he died in 2015.


With a background like this it's small wonder that I have more than an average interest in philosophy, politics and economics: PPE. If I'd known you could get a degree in PPE, I might have worked harder at school, and at different things. But my education was utilitarian, and I was the first in my family ever to go to university: a classic 1960s transition from petty bourgeois to bourgeois.

As a small boy, my father and his sister and their parents lived in a few rooms in a house with shared facilities. He was 13 when his father was killed at sea in 1941. Shortly afterwards he was evacuated down to Cornwall, where he met my mother when he was 15 and she was 14. He joined the Royal Navy as an Engine Room Artificer Apprentice when he left school, still during World War Two.They were married when he was 21. Three days after his 23rd birthday I was born in my grandmother's house in Cornwall.

Shortly afterwards, my parents bought a small terraced house in a working class area of Plymouth. They had very little money, and as soon as I was old enough for my grandmother to look after me, my mother went back to work:she was a teacher. Both worked hard and did well. My mother died in 1974 but my father remarried a few years later. He died as Cdr. W.G. Hicks, R.N. (Retd.) in his big detached house in a well-regarded part of town: as pure a story of hard work as you are likely to find.

I was luckier, but my luck was blended with cumulative advantage: the things he gave me out of love and because he could. I grew up comfortably middle class: a scholarship to a direct grant school and then law at a well-respected university. When in 1975 the time came for me to buy a house of my own, he gave me the deposit.

Far too many well-to-do people are convinced that everything they have is the result of their own intelligence, foresight and hard work. Quite often, quite a lot of it is. But much of it, much of the time, is luck; and even more of it is cumulative advantage: the more you have (and the more your family has), the easier it is to get more. At least two of my close friends have inherited houses, but another died in his late 30s in a rented bed-sit.

Most of my education in philosophy and economics (but not, thanks to my family, politics) has been acquired in my adulthood. I am ever more fascinated by basic questions of fairness; cumulative advantage; how much is enough; and above all, luck. Both my wife and I have been lucky, and have benefited from cumulative advantage. We've worked hard, too; but the older we get, the less convinced we are that hard work alone counts for anything like as as much as luck and cumulative advantage. As I was writing this I came across a wonderful quote from the world of sport: "Success is 90% luck and 10% skill, but don't try it without the skill."


Portland. Why does one person live in a chateau while others live in tiny houses? Obviously equality is impossible, but what is a 'fair' distribution? And how do our lives change? My first house was a small two-up-and-two down, very like many of the houses in this 1986 picture.

All of this is background to this site. There's a bit more biography (of both me and Frances) elsewhere.

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