Who are some famous conmen from history

Little story of a rip-off that changed philosophy

The story begins in the first half of the 18th century. France's public finances are in a catastrophic state - not least because of the infamous Mississippi Bubble, in which the state lured countless investors into a devastating financial adventure. Judge it now a cardinal: André-Hercule de Fleury should be on behalf of his King Louis XV. (1710–1774) accept the matter. It is important to flush money into the state coffers together with the fort's finance minister Michel Robert Le Pelletier.

The obvious idea of ​​obtaining credit from citizens in the form of government bonds is ruled out. Nobody would lend them fresh money. Because even the bonds already issued have become almost worthless due to the precarious state of the state budget. Everyone knew that the state would not be able to repay them for the foreseeable future. But what, the two seem to have thought, when the state played for money with its citizens?

This article is contained in Spectrum History, 1/2021 The Conquest of the Peasants

Cardinal de Fleury and Le Pelletier des Fort remembered a popular pastime: the lottery. Its history begins in France as early as 1539, but gambling with tickets only really got going at the beginning of the 18th century. No sooner had the church given up its resistance than one could participate in dozens of lotteries in the country. To curb the wild growth, all but three lotteries were again banned in 1727, but the lottery fever had long since gripped people. This is exactly what the two gentlemen wanted to take advantage of.

Their plan was a simple one: all holders of government bonds should have the right to buy a ticket for the monthly lottery. Anyone who drew a winning ticket was reimbursed 85 percent of the amount of their bond (the remaining 15 percent went for administrative matters and for the pot of the next drawing). The price of a ticket was determined by the amount of the bond that buyers wanted to cash out in the event of a win - namely one thousandth. So if you had a bond worth 1,000 livres, you could buy a ticket for a livre and hope to exchange your scrap bond for 850 livres. In addition, a jackpot of 500,000 livres was distributed with each drawing.

Voltaire and the mathematician find a loophole

At this point comes a certain Voltaire (1694–1778), writer, philosopher, pioneer of the French Enlightenment and himself a proud owner of government bonds. Voltaire biographer Roger Pearson from the University of Oxford has set out what events are now unfolding. Voltaire was very interested in the news of the new lottery. So much interest that he discussed the matter one evening with Charles-Marie de La Condamine (1701–1774), a friend of his mathematician and scientist.

Together they come to the conclusion that the way the lottery should be conducted leaves a loophole open. And one that they will soon be slipping through themselves: namely, the amount of the lottery ticket. Because, so the line of thought, what if few people bought a lot of tickets? All they needed would be a sufficient number of low-value government bonds that would enable them to buy very cheap lots. The sheer number of tickets alone would almost guarantee that the jackpot would be paid out to them every time.