The Luck of the Draw

Sunday, May 9, 2010
First Aired: 
Sunday, July 13, 2008

What Is It

Sometimes it isn't possible to distribute goods evenly. When this happens, we often leave it up to randomness – in the form of lotteries – to decide who gets what.  Is this just?  Or is it merely the best we can do?  What distinguishes fair systems of randomization from unfair ones?  John and Ken take their chances with Stanford political scientist Peter Stone.

Listening Notes

Lotteries are believed by many to be the fairest way of distributing benefits. But why use lotteries rather than distributing goods according to what everyone deserves or needs? Should lotteries only be used to "break ties" between people who are equally deserving of a scarce resource? Is life itself some kind of lottery? If lottery indeed is sometimes the fairest way to distribute benefits, is it incumbent on any would-be theory of justice to explain why this is so? Peter Stone, professor of political science at Stanford and an expert on lotteries in the political sphere, joins John and Ken to discuss these issues.

How prevalent are lotteries in public decision-making these days, the hosts wonder? People in Athens, Stone notes, were much more likely to use lotteries in public life than we are today. However, we do sometimes use lotteries in the political sphere---for example, to decide who sits on a jury, who receives scarce medical treatments, and who gets to attend magnet schools.

Do people like having their circumstances decided by lottery? Not if they cling, as most of us do, to the idea that reasons must exist that could decide matters in a principled way, rather than by lottery. And not if they are used to another system, especially if they were consistently "winners" in that system; transitioning to a lottery system challenges them to admit that the system in which they often won was unfair, and that they were, therefore, unfair winners.

Are there general principles determining when a lottery is or isn't an appropriate way to distribute benefits? Stone's thinks so. As he points out, there are many ways to distinguish among people, some of which will be irrelevant to solving whatever distribution problem is at hand. (For example, though it is possible to distinguish among people by skin color, many would consider this distinction irrelevant when, say, determining which young adults to conscript into the military.) Still, some distinctions will be relevant to solving that distribution problem. (For example, distinguishing between able-bodied young adults and disabled ones might be important for deciding whom to conscript.) In light of this, Stone's heuristic for deciding when a lottery is appropriate is this: If, after exhausting all relevant distinctions among potential beneficiaries, it remains undetermined how to distribute the benefit in question, then use a lottery. This, Stone thinks, helps prevent irrelevant distinctions from infecting distributors' decision-making.

Stone also thinks that only a particular kind of benefit---which he calls "lumpy"---is appropriately distributed by lottery. Roughly, a lumpy benefit is one that can't be divided among an arbitrary number of beneficiaries such that everyone benefits to some degree. For example, suppose there are one hundred free tickets to the movie theater. If one hundred and one people want a free ticket, someone must go empty-handed, for it's impossible to distribute one hundred tickets among one hundred and one people without tearing (and thereby invalidating) some of the tickets.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 6:25)  Julie Napolin interviews employees of the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center in San Francisco, which develops affordable housing for low-income residents citywide. In the Center's first year, they used a first-come-first-served method to decide which of the overabundant applicants received housing. But after noticing that this conferred unfair advantage on applicants who could afford to spend significant time waiting outside the Center on and before application day, administrators decided that subsequent years would use lotteries to decide who would get housing. These days, though some applicants and employees wish applications would be ranked by level of need, at least one administrator holds that it is unfair for anyone to decide (on the basis of a mere application) who is more deserving.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 49:40)  With a healthy dose of speculation, Ian Shoales traces the cultural evolution of the commonplace we call "taking a number". On his account, it all started in Biblical times, when the Apostles ran a lottery to decide whom would replace Judas. Regarding the veracity of this entertaining story, you decide!