Tonight, a multi-state lottery game with a jackpot payout of $640 million took in $1.5 billion, most of it flowing into state coffers (retail cuts are generally 5% on the sale and nothing on the payout, except the big winner). I'm being genuine when I say I'm surprised by how much I've heard people talking about it in public over the last week, rationalizing their ticket purchases with obnoxious cliches like "can't win if you don't play". But their taxes are too high, of course!
The libertarian in me says it's a voluntary tax, and a regressive one at that, so let it be. Allow people to impoverish themselves if they want to do. People do irrational things all the time--we're hardly a rational species. In a partially socialized society like we have in the US, however, there are externalities that others who have no part in the explicit cost end up having to pay.
For God's sake, AE, it's just a lottery! People drop $10 to in exchange for the ability to fantasize about being rich for a few hours before probability hits them upside the head. That's a reasonable amount of utility for the cost. What's the big deal? Is it any worse than going to see a movie or ordering a couple of beers?
No, it's not that big of a deal. But I see the mentality surrounding it, emblematic of the contemporary West though it may be, as poisonous--being rewarded for doing nothing worthy of reward, idly dreaming about abundant material wealth while squandering a bit of the meager pile one has managed to scrape together, the errant belief that one's odds are better than everyone else's are, etc. What a lazy, flabby, impulsive people we are!
Anyway, two of my favorite lottery aphorisms:
- Lottery is the ignorance tax--the dumber you are, the more you pay. (First heard from my high school AP English teacher, though I've seen it attributed to Adam Smith among others)
- Lottery: The process of taking money from a bunch of poor people and giving it to one formerly poor person. (John Stewart and co.)
Parenthetically, if lottery ticket purchases are part of your routine and that helps you get through your days, more power to you. Yeah, the unexamined life isn't worth living, but if I'm not careful, I might find that finger pointing right back at me!