Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed April 1996
Copyright ©1996 by William F. Wyatt

Lotteries encourage people to put money and hopes on blind chance

By William F. Wyatt
William F. Wyatt is a professor of classics at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

"A state lottery is by its very nature corrupt and corrupting. Even if well-run, a lottery is a bad idea, should never have been established, and should now be abolished."

The director of the Rhode Island State Lottery Commission has been fired, or so it would seem: He has been accused of arrogant behavior, unilaterally taking actions without informing his board. An editorial writer in the state's largest paper claimed that the director's departure is a win for the people: Accountability has been restored to the commission.

May I be allowed to doubt that this is the case? There are no doubt good and capable people on the commission who can be counted upon to do a good and responsible job. A state lottery is by its very nature corrupt and corrupting. Even if well-run, a lottery is a bad idea, should never have been established, and should now be abolished.

I remember years ago, in Greece, marveling at the state-run lottery there and thinking that no country that relies on income from a lottery can be truly great. I thought that then and think it now. The Greek lottery at least has - or had - the justification that those peddling tickets on the streets are people who would not have otherwise found employment. I do not believe that that is the case with us.

Arguments in favor of a lottery seem to be of two sorts: 1) People are going to gamble anyhow, and the state might just as well benefit from their gambling. 2) We need the money to support certain activities that are otherwise underfunded. Neither argument is worthy of a hearing.

The first argument is a counsel of despair. It is true that some people are going to gamble. It is equally true that some people are going to do other reprehensible things, but the state does not approve of them. I think of stealing, for instance, or prostitution, both of which are done and illegal - at least in Rhode Island. But, you object, other states do it. My mother and teachers used to chide me as a boy when I remarked of a forbidden activity: "But Johnny does it." The retort was: "Would you jump over a cliff because Johnny does it?" The state is in effect jumping over a cliff on this issue, raising hopes and taking money, in both cases encouraging people little able to afford the game.

The second argument discourages me even more, expressing as it does a disquieting lack of faith in the democratic process. This argument leads precisely to the kind of abuses of power of which the lottery director has been alleged to be guilty: The state is making an end run around the expressed will of the people. According to this second argument the lottery supports activities that would otherwise be underfunded if left to the legislature and the people. If, however, the people of a democracy do not wish to support an activity with their taxes, no matter how desirable that activity may seem to some chosen few, that activity should not be supported. I assume that lottery moneys go by and large to activities most people would feel should receive them. Money might, however, very easily go to things that would be lower on our list of priorities and about which we'd like to have some say, if only through our legislators. Because it has funds pouring in through the lottery, the Lottery Commission, though unelected, has in its hands the direction of at least some political affairs in the state. This is wrong and leads to abuse of power.

There is also a strong moral argument against a lottery: People come to rely on it rather than their own initiative. There are many good ways of making money, even in Rhode Island, and people should be encouraged to try one of these ways. Instead the lottery, with its Power Ball, its slot machines, its advertisements, encourages people to put their money and their hopes on blind chance. Chance alone seems to govern affairs, and individual effort seems to count for little.

In the ancient Greek world the old Olympian gods lost favor over the years, and the most popular - or one of the most popular - of the gods in late antiquity was Tyche, Chance, the personification of fortune. People had given up hope that their efforts would be rewarded, and in part they were right. They were merely pawns in larger games played by kings who employed large numbers of mercenary soldiers in pursuit of their own private goals. The average person, therefore, had begun to feel that life was essentially a chance affair, and that his own individual efforts were meager, petty, inconsequential. No matter how successful ancient man was, he ran the risk of losing everything, his life included, if some great king decided to run an army through his countryside.

The question is: Have we so despaired of making a success of our lives that we entrust our money to chance, assuming that perhaps one day it will be our turn to be lucky? I hope not, for if that is the case we are doomed, for industry and initiative will be neglected in favor of Tyche, who has been described by an expert in the field as "a fickle, unreliable whore, shifting from one to another." On the other side of the coin: Have our officials, elected or otherwise, given up on democracy and the good sense of the citizen body to the extent that they are willing to set public policy without consulting the electorate? I very much hope that both of my questions are to be answered in the negative. I will not be convinced, however, until the state abolishes its lottery.