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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Borges, the Lottery in Babylon, and the Legal System

“Like all men in Babylon, I have been proconsul; like all, a slave. I have also known omnipotence, opprobrium, imprisonment. Look: the index finger on my right hand is missing. Look: through the rip in my cape you can see a vermilion tattoo on my stomach. It is the second symbol, Beth. This letter, on nights when the moon is full, gives me power over men whose mark is Gimmel, but it subordinates me to the men of Aleph, who on moonless nights owe obedience to those marked with Gimmel.”

So begins “The Lottery in Babylon,” a tour de force of a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. For those of you not familiar with the author’s work, it is wonderful, but a bit of an acquired taste. For example, Borges is not well known for his characters; there is little, if any, character development. Borges’s writings are almost mathematical in their precision. For more on Borges check out this great website.

The premise of this short story is that a lottery is conducted at particular intervals, but the results are far more serious and far-reaching than the modern lotteries of today. First, the lottery is compulsory; all citizens must play. Second, the results may be negative, and the penalties are not merely monetary. In this society, convicts change places with lawmakers, the rich exchange places with the poor, all on the result of chance. Borges seems to be asking us whether there can be such a thing as free will in a society such as this? And, perhaps implicitly, he means to question whether many aspects of our current legal system are, likewise, based on chance or arbitrary hierarchies.

Posted by Miriam Cherry on September 14, 2006 at 08:40 PM in Legal Theory | Permalink


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Posted by: thailand lottery | Dec 19, 2018 6:05:11 AM

hey guys,
im doing a paper on this and i think something is wrong with me. i cant seem to find the meaning of "the lottery of babyland" HELP!

what do you think the author meant be the lottery and what was the sybolic message?

Posted by: marry | Apr 28, 2008 1:29:02 PM

"The Lottery of Babylon" always made me think of John Rawls's original position--except that, instead of having an equal chance of ending up in any particular spot, we all end up, throughout the course of our lives, in all the spots.

Posted by: Andrew | Sep 15, 2006 11:32:42 AM

Fascinating story. In his book "The Two Percent Solution," Matt Miller points to a very early Milton Friedman article where Friedman tries to insist that much income inequality is due to personal choice, not chance. Miller notes that this theme haunts libertarian literatures--an insistence on the "willedness" of one's condition. It's also surprisingly common in the self-help literature of "gurus" like Tony Robbins.

As Jackson Lears's book on Luck in America suggests, the accumulation of money is often seen as the best immunity to bad fortune. There's that old 1844 Marx line:

"I am ugly, but I can buy the most beautiful [person]. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness, its power of repulsion, is destroyed by money. I . . . am lame, but money gives me twenty legs. . . That which money can create for me, that for which I can pay . . that . . . I, the possessor of money, am."

Perhaps one would get Lottery in Babylon in our society if bank accounts became random number generators!

Posted by: Frank | Sep 15, 2006 1:01:14 AM

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