April 24, 2002
Late Thoughts On State Lotteries

This entry is a little stale, since it starts from Jeff Jarvis's post of last Tuesday (scroll down a few lines to "More lottery madness"). I agree with Jarvis that it is wrong to take from millions and give it all to one who will probably waste it anyway, and with Matt Welch, whom he quotes, that "the state should not be involved in actively promoting vice to its own citizens". However, I also think there is more to be said on the subject.

Defenders of lotteries say they’re selling dreams. Even if you never win, you can fondly imagine winning, and that makes your horrible life more livable. It’s rather like reading (perhaps not quite the right verb) Penthouse or Playboy: even if your wife or girlfriend is old or fat or ugly or all three, you can pretend, at least for a moment, that you’re sleeping with someone far more attractive. (Of course, the same goes, mutatis mutandis, for those who are female, gay, or both. There is a magazine for every taste -- usually several.)

One could conceivably make a case for a redistributive lottery if it substantially helped a lot of people without hurting anyone much. If the recent top prize of $325,000,000 had been divided into $50,000 chunks, no fewer than 6500 people could have had their financial situations substantially improved and in many (perhaps most) cases totally transformed. A working-class family could pay off its credit card debt, buy a car or two, perhaps put a down payment on a house. For many families, that could make the difference between sending a child or two to college or not. People who had never been to Europe or Asia or South America could take long vacations there. In short, distributing $50,000 each to 6500 different people would do a lot of good for a lot of people.

It would not necessarily do much harm to the losers, if it could somehow be fixed so that no one spent more than $5 or $10 per week on lottery tickets. (I don’t mean to suggest that such a restriction would be either feasible or constitutional.) On the other hand, I doubt that it would be possible to get the prize money anywhere near $325,000,000 unless a lot of chumps were spending a lot more than $5 or $10 per week on lottery tickets. Still, it could be argued that most of the non-winners would have wasted the money anyway if there were no lottery, spending their extra few dollars a week on other addictive substances such as snack foods, liquor, drugs, or porn.

I see no excuse for giving one person more money than he could possibly know what to do with. How do you spend $325 million? Given the often-demonstrated effect of enormous wealth in attracting a whole crowd of new ‘friends’ and ‘financial advisors’ and ‘investment counselors’, it is more than possible that the whole amount will disappear within 10 years (as many have predicted).

Even $50,000 is not always an unmixed blessing. In Maryland (I think it was) a few years ago, some guy who lived in a trailer won $1,000,000 in the state lottery. As usual, this meant $50,000 per year for 20 years, but he managed to drink himself to death before the second check arrived. I suppose his alcoholic tendencies had been kept in check by lack of money to indulge them. Either that, or he couldn’t think of anything else worth spending his new-found wealth on, like a car or a condo or something.

Like Welch, I have always wondered about the morality of having a government encourage, rather than merely allow, the kind of behavior that is often addictive. Defenders say that people are going to gamble anyway, but just because something should be legal doesn’t mean it should be government-controlled, still less government-encouraged. What’s next? Will state liquor stores actively encourage drunkenness and alcoholism? Possible slogans: “If you’d stocked up last night, you could already be drunk!” “Get sloshed and help balance the budget!” Will Nevada nationalize (statize?) their whorehouses and put the girls in spiffy government uniforms? Possible slogans: “Why wait ‘til the third date? Get laid tonight!” “Dinner and roses would cost you just as much, and our girls are guaranteed to deliver!” I’m sure readers can come up with more amusing slogans for the comments. If my parallels sound ridiculous, are they really any more ridiculous than state-run lotteries?

Another cautionary tale about lotteries:

Winning a lottery can be a bad thing in more ways than one.

In 1960 or thereabouts, my mother won a raffle for the first and last time in her life. The prize was a whole turkey -- quite a useful bird, no matter what the season, especially for a woman with four children under 10, married to a lieutenant (junior-grade) in the Navy who was (I think) off on a round the world cruise at the time. At least he has no part in the story.

When she went to pick up the prize from the Elks or Masons or Oddfellows or whoever it was that ran the raffle, they surprised her with smirks, giggles, and . . . a live turkey. There had been no hint of that on the advertisements or the tickets. She didn’t have the nerve, or the presence of mind, to refuse the prize: there may have been reporters present. She then drove her station wagon around Rhode Island for several hours, with four screaming children in the front and middle seats and the turkey in the back sticking its neck out the rear window, gobbling away, as she searched for someone who would kill and dress the filthy bird. People were naturally staring, pointing, and honking their horns. When she finally found the only turkey farmer in the state -- no doubt the same one who had sold the bird to the Elks (or whoever) in the first place -- he charged her $5 (I think it was) to kill and dress it. Whatever the price, it was the same as what it would have cost to buy a frozen turkey at the grocery store.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at April 24, 2002 11:34 PM