The lottery has a long history. It was practiced in the ancient world—Nero was a fan—and in modern times, it’s used for military conscription, commercial promotions in which property or money is given away by random procedure, and, of course, as a means to choose members of the public for jury duty or other government services. In most of these cases, the prize is not cash but some form of goods or services. Nevertheless, there are those who insist that lottery gambling is gambling and that it’s immoral because “there’s nothing about the game of chance, no matter how it’s presented, that is compatible with God’s commandments,” including the prohibition against coveting (Exodus 20:17).
The problem with the argument against state lotteries is that it is founded on the misguided belief that the government is in a position to make decisions that private individuals cannot. There’s a whole lot of history that shows us otherwise.
In the immediate post-World War II period, states were able to expand their social safety nets by increasing taxes or cutting services. But as inflation rose and the cost of the Vietnam War climbed, state budgets started to crumble. Politicians found that the solution was to introduce a lottery. Lotteries, they argued, could magically bring in enough revenue to maintain services without raising taxes or punishing voters.
But what people don’t understand is how the lottery actually works. In addition to the “wacky and weird” coded in its advertising, which obscures its regressive regressiveness, it’s also designed to lure people into playing by promising them that if they buy tickets their lives will improve. This is a dangerous lie and a violation of Exodus 20:17, which prohibits coveting money or the things it can buy.
Lotteries are popular because they make it possible for ordinary people to believe that they will become rich, despite the fact that the odds of winning are very low. But this doesn’t mean that people should support them. Instead, they should look at the costs and benefits of these activities carefully and decide whether or not they want their own state to participate in this kind of gambling.
To do this, they must first distinguish between the lottery and other forms of gambling. There are a few ways to do this, but the most important is to compare the amount of money that’s spent on lottery tickets with the amount of money that is returned in prizes to ticket holders. This will help Alabama officials assess the costs and benefits of a proposed state lottery. Then they can figure out how much of the new state spending will be offset by lottery proceeds and how many jobs will be created and lost. That information should be made available to the general public. A careful assessment of this issue will also help the state make informed decisions about how to spend its money in the future. It’s time to stop taking the lottery’s bait.