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Lotteries and Fairness

English Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, is
reported  to be considering scrapping
the lotteries which determine whether parents get their first choice of schools
for their children. Balls is quoted as saying that the lottery system can feel “arbitrary”
and “random”. Well, give that man a
dictionary. The Telegraph adds that he ‘admitted that they were "unfair"’, which a pair of
quotation marks away from a lie; what Balls actually said is that parents saw
them as unfair.

Are lotteries unfair? That depends on
the history of the potential winners and losers prior to the lottery. If the
good being handed out is normally a reward for effort or for desert, and people
have had a prior opportunity to earn the good, then a lottery is unfair.
Suppose that we stopped the London Marathon after 2 hours, just as the front
runners were in sight of the finish, and enter all the runners’ names into a
lottery; we then draw the winner. That would be grossly unfair, because the
participants had a reasonable expectation of having the race settled by their
efforts and not by the lottery. But lotteries are entirely fair when there are
many equally well-qualified potential recipients of a good, and no good way to
distinguish them on desert-based grounds.

Why do they seem
unfair to parents? Probably because those whose children miss out on the good
schools see other children, equally well-qualified, get in, and point out –
rightly – that there are no grounds to discriminate against their children. But
that kind of unfairness is the inevitable result of a system in which there
are good schools and less good schools.
Someone has to miss out, and allocating places by lottery is a less unfair
method of doing it than most of the alternatives – eg, the ‘tapemeasure’
criterion, whereby admissions are based on the distance of the family home from
the school. It is less unfair than the tapemeasure admission because while the
lottery system allocates places randomly, the tapemeasure criterion allocates
them on a basis that is initially correlated with wealth, and which can be
manipulated further by the wealthy (by buying a home near the school).

Still, the arbitrariness of the
allocation is a fact, and arbitrariness entails that people are sorted out on
the basis of factors over which they have no control. Is such arbitrariness
unfair? Those parents who protest over the unfairness of the lottery and
advocate the tapemeasure criterion instead should think about the fact that the
properties for which their preferred system would stand proxy are themselves morally
arbitrary. Wealth and the capacity for earning wealth is highly correlated with
the socio-economic status into which we are born; children don’t deserve this
endowment of constitutive
luck. If we are really concerned with
eradicating the morally arbitrary, we ought to move to a system which compensates
for bad luck – that is preferential allocation of places in good schools (and
other benefits) to those whose starting
position is worse than others.

It is not because lotteries
allow places to be allocated arbitrarily that they have some element of
though that might explain the perception of unfairness. It is
because they don’t do enough to address existing inequalities. 

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1 Comment on this post

  1. Nice post.

    There are existing (priors) conditions that determine the fate and school succes of children, which are unfair from the origin.

    Lotteries in this scenario could be the sole fair way to resolve allocation of goods when people are equal in capacitation.

    But when they are not equal in capacitation?

    If i interpreted you well, i agree that the answer is: affirmative action.

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