August 23, 2021

In the 1990s, Uncle Eugene, the most entrepreneurial member of the Romanian branch of my extended family, borrowed £4,000 from his sister in Glasgow to buy fruit machines for his bar in Arad. During the Ceausescu years, the pleasures of pressing nudge and holding two bananas were unknown. Capitalism altered that. But it also produced brisk and unpredictable legal changes. A couple of days after installing a row of one-armed bandits on his premises, Eugene discovered that a new bylaw prevented him from switching them on.

The loss caused friction among his relations, but at least it fitted the family history. In 1947, Eugene’s dad had won big on the lottery. However, in August of that month, the Romanian government, with no prior announcement, replaced the currency. 20,000 old lei were suddenly worth a single new leu. A low limit was imposed on the amount it was possible to exchange. The name of this policy was the Great Stabilisation. It made Eugene’s dad the owner of an enormous pile of worthless banknotes.

Luck attends our sense of most events of consequence. The stories of whole families might be told through it. Only matters of complete indifference seem untouched. And yet, it’s very easy to argue it out of existence. Luck might best be seen as a fiction we inhabit because we don’t like the idea that many events in the universe are random. We’re attached to the idea of our own agency and merit. We also love patterns — an instinct of immense evolutionary value that leads us to see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast or believe that if a roulette ball has landed on red ten times in a row, it’s more likely to hit black on the eleventh.

This is the ground of What are the Chances, a new book by the psychology and neuroscience professor Barbara Blatchley. One of Blatchley’s most persuasive arguments is that we are pretty loose and inconsistent with the language we use when we evoke the idea of luck. We confuse fate (which implies a universe in which invisible forces have determined everything in advance) with destiny (a concept with more room for human agency) and chance (which is beyond the control of gods or humans). But in our daily lives, none of this seems to matter much, because such thinking is usually the means to an end: “We look for the cause behind even the most mundane of events,” writes Blatchley, “because feeling as though we know why something happened helps us feel in control of that thing and, by extension, of the universe itself.”

To see this in action, watch a quiz show. On an edition of Pointless a couple of weeks ago, a financial consultant called Helen knocked herself out of the quiz by declaring that Kat Slater in EastEnders was played by an actor called Jessie Williams. The totemic scoreboard gave its dreaded red negative twitch. “Very, very unlucky,” sighed Richard Osman, as he revealed that the correct answer was in fact Jessie Wallace.

But unless she had fallen under the influence of some invisible force that erases soap facts from the heads of random victims, Helen had not been unlucky. She had simply been wrong. Her knowledge of Queen Vic landladies was inadequate to the demands of the game. Should Osman have put it in these terms? Absolutely not. It would have been fatal to the pleasures of his own show. A game of skill that has no language of luck is no game at all.

It’s also harder to win. The former cricketer Ed Smith, who wrote Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters (2012), was once part of a team that decided it would abolish such consoling words and stop ascribing human fault to the imagined influence of cosmic forces. It took six weeks at the bottom of the results table to reverse the policy. Sometimes magical thinking gets magical results.

But what about games with higher stakes than Pointless, or Kent vs Middlesex? An attractively round 50 years ago, the philosopher John Rawls published A Theory of Justice (1971), one of the few works of political philosophy to be adapted as a stage musical. The lottery was an important metaphor for Rawls. For him, life issued us with two tickets at birth. One for the natural lottery, in which the prize is a biological potential inherited from our parents. One for the social lottery, in which winners emerge from the womb into highly favourable material, social and political circumstances. Like all true examples of luck, these advantages have no dimension of desert or merit. Luck is unearned.

We can all think of figures in public life — dynastic columnists, aristocratic models, the progeny of 60s rock stars who clutter up ES Magazine — who owe at least part of their success to early receipt of a Rawlsian Thunderball. And in experimental situations, as in life, recipients of this good fortune do not always perceive their privilege. A famous study at Stanford University set up games of Monopoly in which one player took a double salary and rolled with two dice instead of one: winners failed to acknowledge their unfair advantage and reported that they had triumphed through merit.

I don’t much like Monopoly, but I do play the National Lottery. Since Covid came, I’ve bought tickets more frequently. I always let the app choose the numbers, because the pure aleatory nature of the process seems both the point and the pleasure. I’d never dream of gambling in anything where knowledge, skill or judgement plays a part. (If, like Sid James and Hattie Jacques in Carry On at Your Convenience, I owned an occult budgie that tweeted on hearing the winner of the 2.30 at Newmarket, I’d consider the bet a fraud on the bookie.)

The National Lottery is sometimes called a tax on stupidity — mainly by people who regard themselves as clever, many of whom wrongly attribute the thought to Voltaire. The seventeenth-century economist William Petty is a better source. In his 1662 Treatise of Taxes and Contributions he wrote that “a Lottery … is properly a Tax upon unfortunate self-conceited fools.” (Thank you, QI elves.) But there are more accurate and less snobbish ways of describing its community of players.

A 2009 study by the ecumenical Christian think-tank Theos found that employed professionals spent around £40 a year on the lottery, £30 a year less than manual workers. Benefit claimants were the most prodigious buyers of scratch cards, and the lowest earners — those on £15k–20k per year — were laying out almost a week’s earnings on tickets for the main draw. Theos hasn’t updated these findings, but suspects, as scratch card sales have climbed and draw tickets fallen, that the Lottery now “leans ever more on sales to lower income players”. Camelot has produced no data to contradict this.

If the lottery is a tax, it is a tax on poverty. Those who pay it do not do so because they lack knowledge or are guilty of some kind of cognitive error. A person spending £1.50 of their £86 Universal Credit on a ticket knows what proportion of their income this represents. That money, however, purchases something powerful. Participation in a game that makes Rawls’s lotteries irrelevant. If, to choose a not particularly random example, David Cameron buys a ticket for the Set for Life draw, he is no more likely to win than anyone else.

The machine that reduces an ordered stack of National Lottery balls to a random field of tumbling atoms is called Excalibur. This is one of Barbara Blatchley’s conceptual confusions. Excalibur, as any viewer Monty Python and the Holy Grail will know, is a sword of fate or destiny, not chance. The film’s group of soil-eating anarcho-syndicalists would see the contradiction. When one (played by Michael Palin) tells Graham Chapman’s King Arthur that “strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government,” he is objecting to two things: a society in which outcomes are predetermined by supernatural forces, and one in which wealth and power are largely inherited. There would be less inequality in a world where mud-eaters were as likely to receive a magical sword as a royal figure who has an ancestral supply of ham and jam and Spam. (You might remember that this conversation ends with Graham Chapman attempting to beat Michael Palin to the ground.)

Most attempts to reduce economic inequality accept the results of Rawls’s social lottery and then try to ameliorate their effects. Nobody, as far as I know, has ever suggested working towards the same end by harnessing the power of chance. A massive increase in inheritance tax, for instance, which could be funnelled into the National Lottery, distributing unearned wealth randomly through the population. Having lost — again — on my most recent ticket, I’d be happy to consider it. We could call it the Great Stabilisation.