State Lotteries Disgust Me

State-sponsored gambling disgusts both sides of my political personality. My cold, rational, libertarian side is completely offended by the idea of the state banning a commercial activity between consenting adults in order to have a monopoly over that activity and use it to raise money from the population. It just aggravates the offense that (1) the gambling ban is based on moralistic principles, which principles are then conveniently forgotten in the pursuit of lottery money; and (2) not only do we have the lottery, but my tax dollars go to finance ads encouraging people to gamble in them.

And then my warm, fuzzy, liberal side is absolutely disgusted by the idea that my tax dollars are going to ads to encourage people to gamble away their livelihoods via lies like “everyone deserves a bonus! daily scratch is the best way to get a bonus!” (yes, that’s more or less a quote from a radio ad). Okay, if people want to go out and piss away money they can’t really afford gambling, it is their right to do so, but do my taxes have to be used to entice them to do it? And does my very own government have to be the agent of their corruption?

Is there any principled argument for state-sponsored gambling? The main arguments I hear are (1) it’s voluntary! no one is being forced to gamble! and (2) the money goes to education, and that’s important! Okay, (1) it is not really as voluntary as it seems, since the state also bans anyone else from offering gambling (Indian casinos aside). Let’s consider a couple of hypotheticals: (a) should the state sell heroin to raise money? and (b) should the state ban bacon and then sell bacon to raise money? That would raise a lot of money, and hey buying bacon is totally voluntary. I don’t think I even have to make the argument; the hypotheticals are self-evidently absurd, and they’re not fundamentally different from lotteries. Gambling is apparently enough morally worse than bacon that we feel okay banning it, but not so bad (like heroin) that we feel culpable for encouraging people to do it.

And (2) really amounts to the argument that the people have to be tricked into paying for education because they won’t put up with the necessary taxes and will punish anyone who suggests it. The politicians who propose lotteries, in other words, are either cowards or gritty realists depending on your point of view. I suppose the realist would ask me: which would you rather have, a government free of this particular corruption but an inadequate school system, or a morally indefensible government that provides a decent education? That’s a hard one to answer, but I’m not ready to conclude that we the people are so corrupt. But perhaps we are, and that disgusts me.