Conley: Let’s Randomize America!

Nicholas Coccoma wrote to point out a recent article by Dalton Conley, professor of sociology at Princeton University, in The New Yorker. The rather lengthy article revolves around randomness in public policy. It starts with the story of the introduction of the draft lottery in the US, then moves on to a proposal (a rather unconvincing one, it seems to me) for handling economic inequality using randomization, and finishes off with sortition and with a general call for using randomization to achieve a fairer society.

For three decades, through three wars, the U.S. military draft was directed by Lewis B. Hershey, a general in the Army. Hershey established the first local draft board in 1941; eventually, there would be four thousand of them. […] The boards, which adjudicated claims for reclassification or deferment on a case-by-case basis, had a distinct character. They were disproportionately white, white-collar, and elderly. According to analyses conducted in the nineteen-sixties, draft boards more often granted deferments to privileged young men, and poor Americans of color made up a disproportionate share of draftees. […] In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson convened a group of experts to study draft reform. They recommended a drastic overhaul to centralize the process, and argued, controversially, for randomizing it. What was needed, they wrote, was a lottery to decide who should fight, in which the “order of call” was “impartially and randomly determined.”

Many people did not find this idea appealing. Detractors argued that haphazardly drafting young men, some of whom were training for critical civilian positions, would be inefficient at best and destructive at worst. Merriam Trytten, a physicist by training, who was the president of the Scientific Manpower Commission—a nonpartisan group set up by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to advise the government on issues of scientific personnel—said that, under such a system, “scientific effort in the United States will pay a substantial penalty.” […] A Gallup poll conducted in 1966 found that only thirty-two per cent of Americans favored a lottery system.

Johnson did not follow his commission’s recommendations. But Richard Nixon, who inherited the Vietnam War, did. On December 1, 1969, Americans watched the first televised draft lottery. Three hundred and sixty-six blue capsules swirled around a glass vat until Alexander Pirnie, a Republican congressman from New York, selected one. Nineteen-year-olds who’d been born on September 14th would be called up first. Privileged young men were not exempt: Nixon’s son-in-law David Eisenhower—the grandson of Dwight Eisenhower, and the person after whom Camp David had been named—received a draft number of thirty, and ultimately joined the Navy. The Vietnam War remained unpopular, but the random draft was, comparatively speaking, embraced; among those under thirty, support for the war jumped by five per cent after the first lottery. Hershey, who had denounced the lottery, was soon “promoted” into a new job.

Today, the random draft is generally seen as a vast improvement over the previous system. It’s also an example of a rare phenomenon: a change that makes a consequential part of American society more random, not less. On the whole, randomness has been squeezed out of the systems that organize our lives.

As our society has become less random, it has become more unequal. Many people know that inequality has been rising steadily over time, but a less-remarked-on development is that there’s been a parallel geographic shift, with high- and low-income people moving into separate, ever more distinct communities.

As a sociologist, I study inequality and what can be done about it. It is, to say the least, a difficult problem to solve. Manhattan, where I live, is situated in New York County, one of the nation’s richest; Bronx County, just a few miles to the north, is its poorest. […] The core issue is that our social contract is based on place: we make decisions and fund our government in a fundamentally local way. […] I’ve come to believe that lotteries could help to crack this nut and make our society fairer and more equal. […] What if, instead of paying taxes where we reside, and then reaping their benefits locally, we sprinkled taxation and revenues randomly—and therefore evenly—across the United States? What if, instead of paying a third of my taxes to New York City and State, I instead paid them to Pod No. 2,264—a group to which I was randomly assigned by a lottery the year I turned eighteen? […] In such a system, the retreat of affluent people from the places where they live doesn’t matter.

Public pods won’t happen—but it’s still useful to blue-sky. In the midst of the Vietnam draft lottery, the political philosopher John Rawls proposed his own idealized blueprint for a fairer society, in a book called “A Theory of Justice.” In his imagined world, we cast our votes not from our current stations in life but from what he called the “original position”—a Platonic state in which we don’t know what place in the world we might occupy. […] As a political tool, lotteries have come and gone throughout history. Sortition—the selection of political officials by lot—was first practiced in Athens in the sixth century B.C.E., and later reappeared in Renaissance city-states such as Florence, Venice, and Lombardy, and in Switzerland and elsewhere. In recent years, citizens’ councils—randomly chosen groups of individuals who meet to hammer out a particular issue, such as climate policy—have been tried in Canada, France, Iceland, Ireland, and the U.K. Some political theorists, such as Hélène Landemore, Jane Mansbridge, and the Belgian writer David Van Reybrouck, have argued that randomly selected decision-makers who don’t have to campaign are less likely to be corrupt or self-interested than those who must run for office; people chosen at random are also unlikely to be typically privileged, power-hungry politicians. The wisdom of the crowd improves when the crowd is more diverse.

Lotteries could work for the assignment of certain civic responsibilities: street sweeping, PTA participation, park planting, and so on. They could help with the apportionment of burdens that no one wants to shoulder, such as the siting of toxic-waste dumps and prisons. And weighted lotteries, in which poorer people get more lottery tickets, could improve parts of our social safety net. Currently, the waiting lists for public housing and Section 8 housing vouchers are very long, and laws in some states insure that the homeless jump to the top of the queue. That sounds fair, but many families wait for years and never move up the list, and research has shown that the policy ends up incentivizing homelessness. A lottery conducted among eligible families whenever an apartment becomes available, with some weight given to need, would decrease incentives to game the queue by remaining unemployed, unmarried, or homeless.

Some of us would lose in a more lottery-based society. But many of us would win. And we might end up being more compassionate toward one another; we’d be forced to acknowledge that much of our lot is the luck of the draw. We argue endlessly about the meaning of luck, even if we don’t always realize it. How much are we responsible for what happens in our lives? What’s the difference between luck and choice? How much should society try to help the unfortunate? Much psychological research shows that Americans who believe that luck plays a large role in our lives tend to be more liberal, supporting redistributive policies. Yet almost all of us seem to wish for a society in which luck plays no role, and in which everyone gets what they deserve, whether through their own actions or through mutual aid.

Despite this common goal, we tend to reach for lotteries only as a last resort, as President Nixon did when waging an unpopular war. We tell ourselves that we are successfully squeezing randomness out of life, by means of ever more refined algorithms and targeted social policies. But one lesson of our pod-based thought experiment is that we already live under the reign of lotteries—lotteries of birth, of location, of economic and social fate. We’ll never truly randomize America, but even entertaining the possibility can help us see that it can be useful to acknowledge randomness, and even to incorporate rolls of the dice into our collective life. What if, instead of trying to erase luck, we embraced it?

2 Responses

  1. The “public pods” proposal reminds me a bit of Andrew Rehfeld’s book The Concept of Constituency (2005). Rehfeld proposed assigning every U.S. citizen at birth to a different Congressional district, with which they would remain associated throughout their entire lives no matter where they lived. It would have the effect of making districts maximally diverse internally. It would also, as critics note, make for a very homogeneous Congress, as each district would presumably be elected very similar candidates (probably middle-of-the-road white guys).


  2. Thanks for alerting us to an entertaining article; worth a read. His attraction to randomness in social affairs has not come out of the blue (often the case in these magazine articles!) Conley is well-informed about Sortition — selecting the people to debate/legislate at random, and using a lottery to decide the person who gets the prize/forfeit (school place/military draft).
    Conley’s overriding concern seems to be the widening gap between the haves and have-nots. This is created by the rationalistic attempt to ‘give everyone what they deserve’, in other words Meritocracy. But the lotteries of life (luck) as to where we are born and our economic and social fate intrudes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: