Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Good Societies and Good Lives

Good societies are those that make it easy to live good lives. A society that erects numerous obstacles to good living, however, cannot count as a good society. By this criterion, present day society cannot be considered good. It has too many institutionalized features that impede human flourishing. Here I discuss just one such feature, state lotteries.

Any government that promotes lotteries is promoting behavior that is harmful to many and positively good for none. Sufficiently disciplined people can of course gamble without harming themselves economically. They gamble for diversion and they know when to stop. They have no illusions about it and they appreciate that in the long run it is a losing proposition. But even these people are not doing themselves any good by gambling: they are wasting time that could otherwise be used in some productive way. The undisciplined, however, positively harm themselves, and not only by going into debt. They wallow in irrationality and ‘innumeracy’ (the mathematical analog of illiteracy). How many gamblers could explain the Gambler’s Fallacy? They associate with people who are likely to have a bad influence on them. Since the virtues and vices tend to come in clusters, the gambler is likely to become a drinker, a glutton, and so on. In the words of an old Mose Allison tune: "Drinkin’ and gamblin’, stayin’ out all night; . . . livin’ in a fool’s paradise."

I am not saying that gambling should be illegal; I am saying that it ought not be state-sponsored. Government should cause no harm. Some will respond by pointing to the supplemental revenue that state lotteries generate, revenue that can be put to good uses. The tacit assumption seems to be that, for any X, if X is a source of supplemental revenue, then X is a good thing.

This assumption is false. State-sponsored prostitution would be an excellent source of revenue, but not something a state should sponsor. If it is wrong for the government to promote prostitution, the use of tobacco products, the drinking of alcohol, and the taking of drugs, then it is wrong for the government to support gambling in the form of lotteries.

One can argue with some show of plausibility that governments should permit the aforementioned activities; but I cannot see how any rational person could argue that governments should support or promote them.