The reverse lottery

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This is a thought experiment. Any ressemblance to real or fictional people or events is purely coincidental. Any expectations of realism and decent ways to put in place the following ideas will be met with laughter.


Have you heard of the lottery? It’s this weird system where people pay money to a company to get absolutely nothing in return, and once in a while this billionaire company offers a few million dollars to a random person to keep all the others motivated to pay them.

Except for a few exceptions every now and then, betting on most lottery-type games is a bad idea. The organisers usually design the game to make sure that they end up with a profit. And if they make a profit, it means that on average, the player loses money. Of course, losing a few bucks might seem very tame to someone if they have the chance of winning millions, but to a huge majority of players, they will never see such a million, and will lose “a few bucks” often enough for it to become “a significant number of bucks”.

If we look at an entirely voluntary lottery, the deal is basically this: A large number of people will give out a low amount of money (low enough so that this giveaway does not significantly impact their lives for the worst) so that one person’s life can be incredibly improved instantly. One of the side effect is making the company offering the deal rich too. That is usually legal.

Let’s now imagine the exact opposite deal. You can go to the convenience store of your choice, and buy tickets for a reverse-lottery. The tickets are better than free. Any ticket you buy gives you instantly two dollars, cash, that you can do whatever you want with. You can buy as many of them as you want, but you have to do it manually (not automatically with a computer). But at the end of the week, one of the available tickets (not just the tickets that were sold, but all available numbers, so it might have no “winner”) is chosen as the “winning” ticket. But in this case, the prize is an instant debt of several million dollars. An amount to cover everyone else’s two dollars, plus a profit margin for the company. Furthermore, since this is a thought experiment, the “winner” can’t declare bankruptcy, and can’t hide. They have to work basically as slaves for the company until their debt is repaid.

Just like real lottery winners can share winnings with loved ones, and can mess up and spend it all within a year so they are back to being poor quickly, those winners can ask for the help of loved ones with the forced work to repay the debt faster, and their debt repayment rate is decided by their productivity in their repayment “job”, so there is a chance of them being productive enough to repay it in just a few years.

Let’s say that this reverse lottery has the exact same return on investment than the real lottery. This means that, a dollar ticket with a 1/1000 chance of earning 500 dollars has an expected return on investment of -0.50$, so a reverse lottery ticket would have a 1/1000 chance of losing 1500 dollars with a -1 dollar ticket, for that same expected expected return on investment of -0.50$.

This sounds sort of unethical. This time, the deal is that many people can get a bit of free money, so their lives is a little bit better/easier, in exchange for one person taking on a large debt and significantly reducing their life’s quality.

Normal lottery: Huge chance of losing very low amount of money, very low chance of winning huge amout of money

Reverse lottery: Huge chance of winning very low amount of money, very low chance of losing huge amount of money.

Most people aren’t fans of burdening randomly-chosen citizens with a ridiculously huge debt and forcing them to work as slaves for maybe the rest of their lives to repay it. I am pretty sure basically everyone would vote to outlaw this reverse lottery as soon as it showed up.

The question is: why?

From a stricly utilitarian perspective, both lotteries inflict a larger amount of damage on the masses than it gives them good, and they do it with the exact same ratio. Both are for-profit companies that would make their money from the masses misunderstanding statistics and willingly giving up their money by betting on bad odds.

In modern society, taking a large amount of money from few people, turning them into slaves and basically owning their lives is seen as a horrible crime. Yet taking the same amount of money from a huge group of people so that every one of them has a smaller burden is seen as perfectly fine. Of course, nobody thinks that the masses could decide to share the burden of the reverse-lottery winner, and it would end up the exact same as lottery. Of course the masses wouldn’t do it, but the option is there.

I’m usually a big advocate of letting consenting adults do whatever the hell they want, as long as they don’t hurt any non-consenting other person, without regards to the fact that they might hurt themselves. In this situation, even though it feels different, and pretty evil, It would simply make sense that I disagree with them, but still allow them to operate. Just like the real lottery, every single person is choosing to participate, and knows that they are likely to lose more than they win.

This is an example of a situation that I feel like I should disagree with, yet can’t really explain why. From every perspective, it seems like the exact same bad deal as the normal lottery. Yet I would probably vote for outlawing reverse-lottery if it showed up. I usually call this the “You are always still wrong” philosophy. No matter how much I try to express my values and ethical opinions into a logical set of rules, there is always a way to find a loophole. There is always another situation that my own opinions say that it should be handled some way, yet I would most likely handle it another way.

Just like you can’t be perfect, but you can always improve something and get closer to it. My own opinions will never be perfect. Yet I can always try to improve them. The worst mistake is believing you are done improving. That’s when you turn into a slave to opinions that may or may not still be relevant and logical for the current world or a specific situation.

I don’t want to be that guy who makes his decisions on feelings instead of cold hard facts and logic. But I certainly want to be that guy whose logic premises are allowed to evolve, if required.

Would you allow the reverse-lottery to operate?