Ethics of Lotteries vs Casinos

I live in Florida where we have a lottery that is supposed to provide money for education. At the same time we have a strong resistance to allowing casino gambling. Now I’m not a gambler, and don’t recommend it. Some do it for entertainment, and I don’t have a problem with that. For me it would be very expensive entertainment indeed!

But I find this approval of gambling–what else is the lottery–for state purposes while opposing any form of casino gambling a bit puzzling. Over the years I have heard many, many ads for the Florida lottery, and they trouble me much more than casinos do. It has been said that lotteries are a tax on math illiteracy. In that case, the ads for the Florida lottery amount to aiding and abetting math illiteracy, as well as charging a penalty for it. I’m only going to comment on the ones I’ve heard here, though I suspect other lotteries must use similar methods.

Gambling by nature operates on creating an illusion. Entertainment in general does the same thing, so that’s not a criticism. In the lottery, the illusion is that you’re doing a good thing by participating and you just might get rich. Of course, there is a need to convince people that the likelihood that they will get rich is higher than it really is. In the casino, I would maintain, this is a known and knowable part of the entertainment. People may get taken in, but they basically ask for it. But do they ask for it in ads on radio and television for a state-sponsored lottery?

Let me give an example. One type of ad emphasizes the number of chances. For example, a certain ticket is advertised as having “more chances now than ever.” One ad a couple of years back announced that each ticket now provided five chances to win–a great boon to the players. Now anyone who knows probability realizes that the actual chance to win remains the same if you increase the chances to all the players. Your odds become 5 times what they were out of 5 times what the total was before–totally equal.

I guess one could say that if you fall for that, you deserve to lose your money. In a casino, I might even say the same thing. If one spends more on entertainment than one can afford, one has only oneself to blame. When I was an airman on temporary duty in Panama I once took $50 with me into a casino and played until it was gone. My experience didn’t make me want to spend another $50, but not everyone likes the same type of entertainment.

But should the state be sponsoring misleading advertising? Yes, the lottery is handled by a contractor, but it is still done for the state, and its purpose is education. I don’t see this. I particularly don’t see it as better than casino gambling. I think it would be much better for us to support education directly through taxes spent on the purpose. It’s not my purpose to examine the use of the lottery money here, but there are many who question whether the education spending from lottery money is not offset by cuts the legislature feels free to make based on the availability of the lottery money. I don’t have good numbers on this.

(As an aside, we need to establish education as a valuable, profitable investment, not a simple expenditure. One thing that troubles me about many fiscal conservatives (and I am fiscally conservative) is the tendency to lump all expenditure together, and then talk directly about cuts and deficits. “Cuts across the board” are unlikely to be wise. The problem is that we don’t have the discipline to prioritize and make choices. Spending on defense, law enforcement, education, and highways, for example, is qualitatively different from expenditures on social safety net programs.)

It seems to me that it is unethical for the government to participate in deception, and particularly a deception that tends to take money from those least able to afford it. They should be safe from such exploitation by their government.

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  1. I agree with your concerns about deceptive advertising. We can’t take those out of politics, but the government itself should show some restraint.

    I’m still trying to work out my own theological understanding of gambling – given the UM position on it – but part of the danger does seem to be the issue of false hope. The lottery (and other forms of gambling) say they are just innocent fun or entertainment, but at the heart of it, they are selling hope.

    Since we Christians believe we have learned something about the basis of true hope, the peddling of lies in the name of hope is problematic for us. Or at least for me.

  2. I have a particular aversion to both lotteries and gambling, although I try not to be too preachy about them as from my own reading, there isn’t a clear prohibition on lotteries and gambling that one could glean from scripture (at least not that I have seen).

    What really bothers me about both of them is that neither of them represent a sustainable productive economic activity. At it’s basest form, to me gambling is coveting your neighbors goods. A casino game is not something that creates wealth. It merely transfers wealth between players while charging a fee to do so. There is no net increase in value. Your winnings come not from the casino, but from your neighbor.

    The same is true for the lottery – the winnings are taken from your neighbors and redistributed by chance. There is no real value creation. “Investment of lottery proceeds” is a cover for the fact that they are doing the same thing a casino game does – transfer wealth from one person to another while charging a fee. (Check out the salary of your states lottery director to get an idea of the extent of the fees involved with lotteries).

    If the programs that the lottery invests in are that critical, then fund it openly and fairly with taxes that don’t unfairly penalize those that are in need and stop playing games with programs that are important.

    1. Larry, It sounds like you like it even less than I do, and I don’t like it at all!

      Your comment got sent to moderation, though I don’t see anything in it that should have done that. Sometimes the moderation queues and spam filters stump me, but then I couldn’t live without them.


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