NOT ONLY is lottery fever spreading among the states, but some federal lawmakers are contemplating a national counterpart that would ease budgetary woes. If ever there were a bad revenue enhancer, a lottery is it.
For one reason, once enacted, a lottery is here to stay -- not because it's a good idea but because it's a selective tax. You pay it only if you play the game. The majority of the public wants it on the expectation that numerous individuals Thomas V.DiBaccomight profit on it. Yet the reality is that winning big from the lottery is unlikely and that most people who play need to use their money in better ways (it's a regressive tax on the poor). To say nothing of the ethics of government that spends millions of dollars to lure individuals into thinking otherwise (and in Maryland with some of the best musical jingles that good advertising money can buy).
That same government on a federal level, by the way, is insistent on taking away the free speech of a perfectly legal product -- tobacco -- through restrictions on advertising. If tobacco is a vice, then the government's right to discourage its use should be consistent with its obligations to educate Americans about other vices. Yet state governments throughout the land use the same slick advertising tactics that used to lure nonsmokers into buying cigarettes to make lottery-ticket buying an indispensable consumer activity.
In other words, the worst aspect about a legalized lottery is that it turns what is otherwise a vice into a virtue. Gambling, along with alcohol consumption, was among historic vices that drew ++ the wrath of society. Alcohol consumption is dwindling as a conspicuous vice, thanks to government warnings (even on bottles) and an increasingly educated, health-conscious population. But gambling is thriving as a result of burgeoning state lotteries, even though the new morality about this ancient vice is not entirely consistent.
For example, two years ago Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose was banned for life from baseball because he allegedly bet on the outcome of big league games. Millions of Americans -- in office pools and similar arrangements -- gamble similarly on sports every day, and not one is likely to be rebuked. There was never any evidence that Pete Rose's alleged acts ever involved fixing a game by his team in order that Rose could win a bet. He simply gambled, and the prohibition against same was almost 70 years old when Rose received baseball's capital punishment.
Now if Rose had done drugs, he would have been treated less harshly. In fact, he would have been given opportunities for rehabilitation (and his chances for election into baseball's Hall of Fame -- now unlikely -- would have been greater). Recall that the usual rule of thumb in professional sports is that a drug-user gets three chances before the ultimate thumb's down prevails.
So is gambling more morally offensive in big league sports than drug use?
But aren't drugs the scourge of the land?
Sure. Yet, at least in sports -- which should be conscious of the necessity to provide, and distinguish among, proper role models -- there is something worse, namely, gambling.
Certainly, one can make a distinction between sports figures gambling and the average Joe and Sally betting on sports -- as well as a distinction between betting in an office pool and in a legal lottery.
But gambling is an insidious vice that feeds upon unrealistic hopes that government has no business promoting. States know that. Out of feelings of guilt, many of them make regular donations to hot lines operated by the National Center for Pathological Gambling. Even more tragically, some of the lottery money in Florida and other jurisdictions is going to education, a field that should represent -- from funding to objectives -- humanity's loftier values.
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at The American University, Washington, D.C.