Lotteries in Public Life by Peter Stone (editor)

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Lotteries in Public Life by Peter Stone (editor)

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Andy Lancaster
Reviewed by Andy Lancaster
Summary: This collection of essays must be considered as one of the key texts on the subject of using lotteries to decide upon issues in public life, exploring as it does almost every significant paper published between 1959 and 1998 on the theory of lotteries. But it is also a text which will inspire the reader to a consideration of the role of chance and randomness in all forms of decision making, and indeed to consider the whole process of how we make up our minds.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 262 Date: August 2011
Publisher: Imprint Academic
ISBN: 978-1845402082

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Peter Stone's reader is an examination not so much of examples of lotteries in public life, but of the theoretical and conceptual issues which the use of 'sortation' in decision taking raises. There are essays here about the use of the lottery in politics, in allocating scarce resources (such as school places or human organs) and even on the problems of defining the lottery and the methods for assuring fairness. Because lotteries are used in many societies to resolve issues and perhaps because of recent discussion of the use of the lottery to allocate school places, this is a hot issue which raises fundamental questions about democracy and choice.

Whatever paper one looks at here, whether based upon scientific methods of achieving randomness, on the literary description of a lottery-based society envisaged by the great fantasy writer Borges or a more philosophical discourse upon the nature of fairness, this collection asks one essential question - 'When would we trust our judgments to chance?'.

The essential issue here is that mere chance seems to fly in the face of the common sense of contemporary society which assumes that all decisions are subject to rational balance and considerations of merit. But the text makes us realise that there are points at which this comforting assumption of controlling logic runs out, where for instance more who deserve an organ than can possibly have it. And the articles also question whether the end results of a lottery for jurors, or for a senate for instance, actually results in more equitable balance of personnel, and whether thus the decisions taken by a random group are more appropriate than those taken by the experts.

Lotteries appear often to have been derived from historical cultural circumstance, from the legacy of the past, sometimes even a distant past which consigned choice to magic and fate, through rituals of divination and the interpretations of signs by the oracle. And whatever mechanisms and methods are put in place to ensure true randomness, absence of bias, or even subtle combinations of measuring need with random allocation within a section of the community, I was still left feeling that lotteries can be seen almost as what is left when supernatural agency is taken out of the equation of casting the runes.

And this is the kind of philosophical challenge with which the writers present to us. If we are attempting to achieve fairness and equity, if we want something representational of a large group, if we genuinely can't allocate a resource to everyone and have to choose, what happens to our notions of fairness and conversely to our assumption about the importance of decisions being based upon rational and logical thought.

I was left thinking that when we allow ourselves to be mastered by chance, perhaps we are closer to admitting the limits of human knowledge and capability, and thus perhaps we are more genuinely close to an almost spiritual acceptance of fate. At the heart of any attempt to make the process of lottery more scientific lies a fundamental dichotomy of human perception between a view of humanity which puts the rational process in control, or one which accepts that chance is the powerful agency in human affairs.

A book which explores how another philosophical concept can work its way through human decision making, in this case in private as well as public life, is The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better For Everyone by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. For perhaps an antidote to Stone's anthology in both tone and in that it focuses upon the practical application of choice in the public world I would recommend a look at Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World by Tina Rosenberg.

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