Powerball: Why the Lottery is Idiotic

Today, the final winners of the Mega Millions jackpot Merle and Pat Butler, came forward to claim their share of the $218 million jackpot, which amounts to $158 million after taxes. The Butlers are retired computer analysts from Illinois and, for what it's worth, they seem like a nice couple who will be able to spend the remaining years of their lives comfortably.

But the lottery as a government program has to be one of the most idiotic inventions ever created.

While working as a convenience store clerk as a teenager, I spent years watching people, typically poor, with little self-control, spend hundreds to thousands of dollars on big jackpot lotteries like Powerball and popular scratch off tickets. As a child, I remember my stepfather pulling two dollars out of his pocket, telling me that they were the last two dollars to his name. Then, we'd spend them on scratch tickets. In the rare event that we actually won (he let me scratch sometimes), we'd reinvest our winnings in more scratch tickets.

Lotteries take advantage of our worst impulses without any real chance of a positive outcome. They are government programs that redistribute billions of dollars in wealth from people who work hard for their money to a very small group of people who didn't work for it and, by any coherent moral view, don't deserve it. Imagine a politician campaigning on such a program! Oh wait.

Some of my conservative-minded friends call the lottery "a tax on stupid." That's a blunt way of putting it, but it's basically true. Lotteries take advantage of people who least understand their odds of winning and can least afford to play. What's more, the winners get far more money than they'll ever need.

If the lottery is a tax on stupid, it's not like most other taxes. Generally, when you tax something, you get less of it. But, with lotteries, the opposite happens: People gamble more. And, in lotteries, they gamble without any real chance of winning.

I'm not naive enough to believe that people will ever stop gambling altogether. And the best argument in favor of state lotteries is that the government often uses the money it raises for good things, like education and anti-gambling initiatives. But governments can raise this money by taxing the gaming industry (where people have at least some chance of winning) directly, instead of running government programs that break the backs of our most vulnerable citizens. This would actually discourage gambling by making the gaming industry less profitable, and it would raise revenue. 

Lotteries promote irrational behavior and discourage the American ideal of working hard to get ahead. They take money from the poor and concentrate it in the hands of the very few. In no way do they promote the general welfare, social justice, or encourage the traits we want in our citizens.

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Andrew Hanson

Research Analyst @ Georgetown Public Policy Institute. Interested in issues related to education and inequality. Teach For America alumnus. Studied philosophy as an undergrad; interested in political philosophy and philosophy of science.

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