Why the Lottery Won’t Work: Barbara Goodwin’s “Justice and the Lottery”

Rory Ewins

This is the second in a series of essays I wrote as an undergraduate, honours, and then masters student in political theory. I’ve edited it to remove youthful hyperbole and imperfections of style, but essentially this is the work of a third-year political science student, written in 1989 in response to an assigned article.

Barbara Goodwin’s “Justice and the Lottery” (1984) examines an intriguing society imagined by Jorge Luis Borges (1970), “Babylon,” in which the events of every citizen’s life are determined by a lottery held every sixty days. Goodwin argues that this novel use of chance produces a just society, and that comparable methods could be adopted today to make our own society more just.

Goodwin makes the “fundamentally egalitarian assumption that people do not have different intrinsic ‘worths’ which should be differently rewarded” (1984:202). I will make the same assumption here while examining some of the problems with Babylonian society and Goodwin’s modern lottery.

Borges portrays a society where the lottery rules life. On the urging of its citizens, a system has been initiated whereby every free man participates in a lottery which, every sixty days, determines his fate until the next draw (Goodwin 1984:191). This fate may be a life of riches, a certain job to fill, two months as a slave, or even death. Whatever the outcome, it is only ever temporary, for at the next drawing his role will almost certainly change.

Goodwin argues that chance is not as unfamiliar a determinant of our fate as we may think. It plays a key role in our lives, primarily at birth, when our future health, intelligence, beauty, even social status or class, are all determined (1984:192). We deceive ourselves into believing that people can change their lives by their own free will, when in reality our options are far more limited. Our limited mobility between roles, and the result that some are doomed to a life of poverty while others enjoy a lifetime of riches, leads Goodwin to conclude that our society is unjust.

The Babylonian lottery system leads to greater justice, says Goodwin, because it gives each person a chance of experiencing wealth, and forces each to share in life’s less attractive possibilities. Given the impossibility of eliminating these differences in lifestyles (indeed, the undesirability of doing so, as that would reduce the diversity of life), this system of chance gives everyone a fairer share of the possible experiences in life. Surely, here is greater justice than exists in our own fixed system.

I will not deal here with the Babylonians’ “sacrifice of their freedom,” their “choice to forgo choice” when taking the lottery as their master (Goodwin 1984:195); this raises as many questions as Rousseau’s paradox of “forcing one to be free.” Better to examine some of the problems that would exist in Babylon and Goodwin’s modern system, comparing both with our own (admittedly imperfect) society.

Would people really embrace chance as willingly as Borges’s Babylonians? Goodwin (1984:197) contrasts Rawls’s assertion that “men are not risk-takers” with Barber’s rebuttal that “some people would risk becoming slaves if there were even a significantly smaller chance of becoming slave owners.” It is plausible that some would take any risk—in our own society, people perform dangerous stunts in attempts to break world records. There is also the phenomenon of poor people voting for conservative parties that seek to maintain the status quo; even though in all likelihood they would fare better under a more egalitarian regime, they are attracted to the possibility of doing far better under the conservative regime.

But would a whole society of people, or even a bare majority, agree to regularly take these risks? Here we cannot be certain. In the case of Babylon, the chances must be slim, because among the risks is the risk of death—of drawing the role of “condemned man.” Barber’s quotation is less convincing when rewritten “most people would risk death if there were even a significantly smaller chance of becoming rich.” It is less convincing even when the risk of death is smaller than the chance of riches. And when the riches are to be had for a limited time only, the risk of death looms much larger.

At first glance, the Babylonian system of winning wealth seems attractive. We all dream of winning millions of dollars, but that dream assumes a lifetime of luxury would follow. Babylon’s system of repeated lotteries would almost certainly guarantee the loss of such riches after sixty days.

Life in Babylon would be missing one factor we value highly: periods of stability. Even a year of stability is a valuable experience the Babylonians would probably never enjoy. It need not be the stability of a life of wealth; a reasonable period in even a mundane job can hold a certain comfort. We take such stability for granted, but in Babylon it would be a rare privilege shared only by those lucky enough to draw the same ticket several times in a row.

Another problem is that of risk-assessment. It is difficult for people to assess risks, and the risks of the Babylonian lottery would be no exception. If at any one draw your chance of drawing death was only one in a thousand, would you spend a lifetime playing? Not if you valued your neck, for over a lifetime your chance of being executed would approach thirty percent.1 This is a result of cumulative probabilities, in the same way that rolling a die more than once increases your chance of getting a six. One would need to consider risks carefully, and this would doubtless reduce people’s enthusiasm for the system, especially if they had any doubts about the motives of the mysterious “Company” operating the lottery and assigning probabilities.

The mathematical laws of probability also undermine Goodwin’s central claim that repeated lotteries would lead to a more “equitable” and therefore “just” society. It is true that they would, overall, provide more diversity in each person’s life. But it is not true that they would equalize riches and poverty. Repeated lotteries would not lead to everyone experiencing equal shares of everything. Rather, they would lead to some lucky individuals drawing far above the average number of turns at being “rich”; some, drawing far too much “poverty”; while others would draw some of each. Most would lean one way or the other between the extremes.

This is simply an effect of the probability bell curve.2 Even with the “run-breaking” rules proposed by Goodwin, these trends would occur. On average, yes, each person would get a fair share of poverty and riches—but only in the same way as in our society, people on average are middle class. This unavoidable mathematical effect seriously undermines Goodwin’s claims of the repeat-lottery system being a “just” one, if our criterion for justice is egalitarianism. It would still allow some to lead lives of extreme wealth or poverty; they would merely arrive at them by a different route—that of sheer luck at the lottery, rather than the luck of being born upper or lower class, talented or untalented.

Even if our concept of justice was based on a diverse life for all, the lottery would still give some people diverse lives and some less diverse. Those who draw predominantly rich or predominantly poor lives would have less diverse lives than those drawing a mixture of roles.

Although the bell curve is the key to disputing the “justice” of Babylon, the Babylonian system has other effects we would consider unjust in themselves. As Goodwin points out, every role is filled in this society by lot rather than by merit. One lot which may be drawn is that of prisoner, or even that of the condemned man. We may see this in itself as unjust, but assume for now (as Goodwin does) that the citizen knows the risks and is prepared to accept bad results.

What, then, happens to those who actually deserve to be prisoners—murderers, or thieves? Surely they will continue to exist in Babylon. Some may be cast by lottery in the role of assassin, but others will continue to kill without direction. Justice (in the “law and order” sense) would require their punishment, which cannot be had under the Babylonian system.

A possible solution would be to modify the system to include punishment for undirected offenders (those who commit crimes undirected by the lottery), who would be put in prison alongside lottery prisoners. But doing this introduces distortions into the Babylonian system. Suddenly, merit has resurfaced in a system supposed to be devoid of it: these prisoners merited their sentences. Another problem is that the lottery has replaced an older society where, say, five percent of the population were imprisoned, with onein which the composition of that five percent changes every sixty days. If we imprison undirected offenders as well as lottery prisoners, we would have in jail the five percent that are lottery prisoners, plus others who merited their punishment (probably around as many as merited punishment in the old society, that is, another five percent). Suddenly, the new society has twice as many prisoners as the old, and is a worse society in that respect. We could eliminate the lottery prisoners altogether, leaving only those who deserved prison; but, again, we have then reintroduced merit as the determinant of part of the population’s lives.

What if we left those “undirected criminals” unpunished? They would probably be emboldened by their lack of punishment to commit more and more crime. What would they have to lose? Their chances of going to prison (through the lottery) would be the same as the next man’s, and probably only small anyway. Babylon would become a hotbed of crime, both real and lottery-directed.

The essential problem is that in Babylon real criminals would continue to exist. Similarly, there would continue to be people with intelligence, health, and beauty. Factors like these are not negated by the lottery system; they overlap it. Goodwin has forgotten that her “great lottery of birth” continues unabated in Babylon, as in our own society.3 If factors such as intelligence and beauty affect success in our society, there is no reason why they shouldn’t have a similar effect in Babylon. If you’re beautiful, you will fare better while spending your sixty days amongst the pig-farmers (or whatever else you have drawn) than if you aren’t. The same fundamentals which, as Goodwin points out, largely determine the course of our lives, are present in Babylonians. The element of injustice that goes with them will be just as present in Babylon as it is here—people will fare differently according to their natural characteristics.

Many of these objections to repeated lotteries stand when we consider Goodwin’s proposal for their use in today’s world, although she eliminates some problems (she doesn’t, for example, advocate rotating prison sentences or death penalties).

Goodwin sees potential for a lottery system (or one of rotation) in the distribution of non-specialised jobs and scarce goods: specifically, the job of politician (1984:201). Schemes for rotating political power have been proposed before, but all face one major difficulty: lack of accountability. If politicians know they hold power for a fixed time only, what is to stop them doing whatever they like? And what does it matter if they are lax? Safeguards might be possible against the excesses of power, but could we safeguard against inaction? Many would argue that the desire to extend their term keeps politicians eager to perform well. If the possibility of extended tenure was removed by a lottery or rotation system, eagerness and efficiency might also be lost.

The same could apply to any job. Some would, of course, enjoy the jobs they receive under a lottery or rotation system, and strive to do well in them, seeing this as an end in itself. Others, though, would be dissatisfied or bored, and merely kill time and do the bare minimum. Not all people like their job sin our own society, either, but the argument is not that we have an ideal society, just that Goodwin’s alternative could well be no better. As her example of jury duty (ibid.) suggests, the concept of rotation can work in some situations—but would it work in many others? Could a whole society work under a lottery or rotation system?

The biggest problem caused by the rotation of jobs would be loss of experience. No sooner would someone gain experience in one job than they would be moved to another, and their knowledge wasted. Many jobs can only be filled by someone with years of experience in a particular field. Goodwin allows for this (and undermines her own egalitarian arguments in doing so) by guaranteeing that “highly specialised jobs [be] appropriately filled” (ibid.). It is likely, however, that the majority of jobs would have to be filled in this way, unless we would risk the productivity losses associated with using less-skilled staff. After all, what jobs would be “non-specialised”? Miner? Sales assistant? Janitor? Almost any role is better performed by experienced than by inexperienced staff.

Such difficulties could be overcome by limiting the field of jobs to be rotated, and extending the periods spent in each job, to allow some value to be gained from experienced developed early on in that job. But then we would have a system very nearly approaching our own. As Goodwin points out, chance plays a great role in our lives. We experience chance sackings, economic depressions, and mid-life crises leading to career changes, all of which force on us a form of job rotation. Do we need a lottery at all?

Another problem is raised by one suggested mechanism of Goodwin’s lottery:

It would ... be possible to allow for the voluntary surrender of “good” tickets which people did not value; for example, a non-musical person who drew a ticket for a year at the Paris Conservatoire could surrender it and draw another (1984:200).

If I were a fairly musical person, though not normally Conservatoire material, and also a selfish person, would I surrender my ticket? Probably not. I would keep it and enjoy my year, even though it wouldn’t make me a great musician. At the same time, I would be denying someone of real talent the possibility of going there.4 This situation demands a consideration of merit—places like the Conservatoire were conceived in a merit-based system, as places for only the best, and are most valuable to society when attended by the most talented.

In some areas of life (who should get to live on the Gold Coast, for example), merit-based systems seem inappropriate. But in other areas they are appropriate. What would have happened to Leonardo da Vinci under a lottery system? Would he ever have fulfilled his potential? Would Thomas Edison have been shunted from non-specialised job to non-specialised job, continually denied the opportunity to develop the light-bulb and the phonograph?

Goodwin (1984:202) says the lottery system would “prevent people from capitalizing on their natural advantages,” but do we always want that? Great things have come from those who have. It may seem fair to prevent people from capitalising on inherited wealth or social status, but in the process we might eliminate the range of choices which lead to invention and discovery. To deny people choice, even only some choice, even at their own request, is to deny a whole range of unexpected future possibilities. Nobody in Babylon would have invented the aeroplane, because the option would never have arisen in the lottery. Perhaps our own lives are, on the whole, moulded for us by forces beyond our control. But there are always those who delight us by breaking the mould.

There is one final (and to my mind fatal) flaw with the lottery system. One redistribution suggested by Goodwin is that of homes. She gives the example of Chelsea, and of the lottery ensuring “that everyone has a sporting chance of living there for a time” (ibid.). The converse is that everyone has a chance of living in a less desirable place: say, for example, Beirut.5 This wouldn’t worry our lottery entrants too much, as there would only be a small chance of ending up there, and they would only be there for a limited time.

In our world, most of us are lucky enough not to have to live under the terrible conditions of a Beirut. So no, the pain isn’t equally shared. But neither are we unconcerned by the situation in Beirut. Those who live there try to change it, as do others living outside it. The problems of Beirut will be solved by people striving for change, as others have in the past.

Here, then, is the fundamental difference between our world and that of the lottery. We cannot escape our problems, so we are forced to try to solve them—because we see, for example, the suffering in Beirut. In the lottery world, there is no need to try. “Those people suffering in Beirut will be out soon enough, and it’s not too likely I’ll end up there, so why worry?” This fatalistic attitude is potentially the most dangerous by-product of a lottery system. The world will always have poverty and riches, rights and wrongs. In our world, we are forced to tackle the wrongs, whether they be war in Beirut, poverty, or starvation, even though we find they are continually replaced by new ones. In the lottery world, the wrongs would remain, and simply be shared around. The danger would be that new wrongs would then pile on top of the old.

A lottery world would not necessarily be more just than our own. It would not be much more egalitarian than our own, nor would it have less crime than our own; indeed, it could well have more. Its workers would probably be less skilled and efficient. In attempting to prevent people from obtaining great advantages of wealth, the lottery might also prevent the talented from doing great things of benefit to all. Finally, it would instill a fatalism which would lead people to accept injustices, when it is only by positively fighting them that we limit their extent. Perhaps, after all, the systems we have tried to date hold more potential and hope for the future than the lottery.

August 1989/May 2004


1. Assuming one draw every two months for sixty years, a one in a thousand chance would be thirty percent likely to occur in a lifetime:

1 – (1 – 0.001)360 = 1 – 0.69755 = 0.30245

2. The bell curve, or normal distribution, portrays the statistical distribution of probabilities; Johnston (2000) has prepared a useful primer on the subject.

3. Although criminal potential is not necessarily “acquired at birth”, I’m assuming it is as great in Babylon as in our own society.

4. A solution might be to appoint a judge to determine whether people deserve their tickets. But that would be a merit-based system, and the potential for corruption could introduce further injustices.

5. In 1989 the situation in Beirut was still bad enough for me to claim that it “must truly be one of the worst places in the world in which to live”.


Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Lottery in Babylon.” In Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, ed. Donald A. Yates & James E. Irby, 55-61. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

Goodwin, Barbara. “Justice and the Lottery.” Political Studies 32, no. 2 (June 1984): 190-202.

Johnston, Ian. I’ll Give You a Definite Maybe: An Introductory Handbook on Probability, Statistics, and Excel, rev. ed. [online]. May 2000, accessed 19 May 2004; available at http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/ .