Why in the name of Distributive Justice
should prizes like jobs and school places
be randomly distribut using lotteries?
Distributive Justice: First, screen out the applicants on their merits, but only validated*, relevant* merit.
After that, give all qualified applicants equal chances through the mechanism of a lottery.

*validated means that the selectors must be able to produce evidence to prove that any test or procedure really can predict future performance
*relevant means that it relates directly to what is needed for this job or college course.

Should everything be distributed with the aid of a lottery? No! I am not advocating the use of random distribution in all cases, willy-nilly. When public assets are transferred to private firms, then the full market price should be extracted. So using a lottery to give away telephone numbers, airport landing slots or whitewater rafting permits merely allows private interests to capture the economic rent, and exploit their prize to further increase their wealth at the expense of society at large. Economists such as Binmore have shown how disposal of public assets (3G phone licences) can be arranged to ensure maximum public benefit. The private firms benefit too, because they are freed from the burden of seeking to capture economic rents. They can then concentrate on their welfare-enhancing function: Producing good-quality products in abundance at the lowest possible price.
But a lottery is usually better than queuing (waiting in line) Commercial organisations might consider the use of random distribution as part of their marketing strategy. There is a limited role for distribution of tickets to sporting or entertainment events using a lottery. This might be for image-enhancement—‘we want to be fair to our loyal fans’, or it might be as a more satisfactory alternative to rationing by queuing. A simple calculus of costs and benefits for the firm, and with some regard to customer benefit should reveal if rationing by price, by queuing or by a lottery produces the best result.
A lottery is the best way to distribute the burdens of Society In the interests of justice and fairness the benefits and burdens of Society should be distributed equally among its members, a case made by Zelleke (2005). When these are non-divisible, then a simple lottery represents a fundamental democratic response. Hence the military draft, where all 19-year-old men were at equal risk of call-up; or jury service, where all electors are liable for service. The US Green Card lottery, gives almost every member of the human race an equal chance of becoming an American citizen. The use of a simple lottery embodies the principle, that if there cannot be actual equality, then at least there should be equality of chances.
For businesses, a lottery can be cheaper than the usual elaborate selection rituals – and just as effective in choosing winners. At a more mundane level, random selection should appeal to cost-conscious firms. The process of random selection is quick and easy, so should cost less than the more elaborate procedures currently adopted. These procedures only weakly identify talent, so a lottery will certainly be no worse. Other benefits of random selection for the firm are that it should contain much of the corrupt or biased behaviour by its own agents. This too, means that compliance with anti-discrimination legislation should be assured, relieving the firm of potential losses.


But best of all, it means people can get on better together At a local level, simple random distribution can be the manifestation inter-personal values of reciprocity and consideration. In work groups which interact face-to-face, random distribution of earning opportunities or work stations together with regular rotation should enhance fellow-feeling. Human needs are more than just about self-interest. There is the need for fairplay, and regard for others in a social setting. The evidence that these needs are significant and should be addressed, not least by economists, is steadily accumulating. To encourage co-operation and improve the well-being of workers in groups, a neutral arbiter is needed. Since few if any humans possess such powers of detachment, recourse to the truly independent power of random chance is the best option.

Could Random Selection give us a better class of politicians? Perhaps There are advocates of Random Selection who see it as a cure for the democratic malaise: That reform of Government to make it more responsive to the needs of the people requires the replacement of voting with a form of jury service. Representatives could be chosen at random to fill the roles of MPs (Sutherland, 2004) or to become Lords (Barnett, 1998), are examples of this proposal. I do not disagree with these ideas, but am unsure how much significant change they would make for the lives of people. Corporate influence would still persist, and might find it easier to influence the randomly selected representatives. For websites with info on this, click here

The Big Prizes: Education and Jobs: Awarded, not by false exclusion, but on Genuine Merit We cannot choose to whom we are born, but after that we all hope to have the opportunity to advance. For most of us, it is jobs and education which determine what sort of lives we lead. The basis of the meritocratic ideal is that there should be fair, equal and open access to these. But selection on merit has become a twisted charade. There is some evidence that simple indicators of merit such as IQ, give reasons to select some and reject others. The use of worthless interviews and the imposition of higher grades as gate-keeping devices distort the process. When other irrelevant indicators like hobbies are used in the name of selection on merit, the process ensures that those who are already advantaged get priority—a phenomenon known as ‘the sharp elbows of the middle class’.

This is, I believe, the real democratic prize. Certainly where evidence is established for necessary ability to undertake a job, or to have a chance of success on a particular course of education, then it should be used to reject those patently not qualified. This will invariably leave an excess of applicants over places, especially the popular courses and prestigious jobs. Random selection is the right thing to do next. Anything else is undemocratic, violates our basic belief in an opportunity society. It would be better if the selection lottery was weighted to represent the likely chances of success on the job or on a course. Given the fuzziness of the relationship between measured ability and performance, the form of weighting is a matter of debate. Equal weighting would be the egalitarian choice, favouring the top-scorers would appeal to elitists. The application of validated merit plus a lottery for the award of jobs should extend to hiring, firing and above all promotions. Because it changes the things that matter most in our lives, applying random selection to the most significant prizes in our lifetimes will do far more to achieve a truly democratic society than would reform of Parliament.


Where can I find out more about this ingenious idea?

—Peter Stone at Stanford, California has produced many excellent papers in Political Theory which support the idea of lottery use Visit Peter Stone's website

—Ben Wilbrink is the best authority on the best example of lottery-selection: Medical School entry in The Netherlands. Visit his website which describes how this came about ; —Which includes a seminal paper by Hofstee

—Barbara Goodwin has written an excellent book on the subject 'Justice by Lottery' now in its second edition(2005) available from Imprint Academic, Exeter UK

—Neil Duxbury (1999) 'Random Justice: On lotteries and legal decision-making' Clarendon Press, Oxford concludes with a moderate endorsement of the idea. A very thoroughly researched book.

—John R Boyce did a sound economic analysis in a paper in 1994 in Economic Inquiry Allocation of goods by lottery

—For a scientific approach to choosing by lottery (with some interesting historical examples) Click to article by Silverman & Chalmers in the Lind Library
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