EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

America as a Lottery

In a series of recent works on the rise of inequality in the United States and other countries, economists have proposed a number of policies that might help reverse current trends. But critics of Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and Thomas Piketty also often complain that their proposals aren’t feasible politically.

But why should the proposal of policies meant to promote a more egalitarian society have become a political non-starter in the United States, of all countries?

This, after all, is a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” in the words of Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, quoting a key phrase from the Declaration of Independence.

Why do the words of Lincoln and Jefferson seem to lack resonance in our contemporary political culture?

Consider one likely but little-noted culprit: The recent rise of state-run lotteries.

In the United States for much of its history, gambling was shunned, lotteries were prohibited, and numbers games were outlawed as well. New Hampshire became the first state in memory to organize a state-run lottery, in 1964. In the years that followed, in a quite abrupt reversal of public policy — and in conjunction with the rise of a vehement anti-tax movement that provoked an almost uninterrupted series of state and Federal tax cuts, as well as a number of new state laws making taxes difficult if not impossible to raise — states one by one began to introduce state-organized lotteries. Today, forty-four states and the District of Columbia run lotteries. (Similarly lucrative lotteries appeared for similar reasons in most European countries around the same time.)

The opposition to creating these lotteries in the United States was generally rooted in moral concerns about the impact of legalizing any form of gambling on individuals and communities. But as time passed — and it became clear that state-run lotteries could raise money for social goods like education that were no longer funded through progressive taxation — the lottery emerged as a central feature of American life.

It has become, in effect, a perverse substitute for the kind of political commitment to egalitarian institutions memorialized in the Declaration of Independence.

Walk down any street in Manhattan, and lottery tickets are for sale on almost every corner; on television, lottery results are broadcast nightly; when one of the multi-state lotteries accumulates a very large pay out, the nightly drawing and the identity of the winners becomes a topic of national news coverage.

But the lottery in America is not just an ubiquitous form of everyday wagering. It has clearly become a very powerful vessel of the egalitarian hopes and dreams of ordinary citizens, particularly low-income Americans. After all, lotteries insure that anyone, regardless of race, creed or gender, and regardless of wealth or status, can dream of hitting the jackpot.

Moreover, it makes good symbolic sense that ordinary citizens would rest their hopes on such an institution. The egalitarian significance of the lottery as a social form runs very deep. The eighteenth century political philosopher Montesquieu in fact thought the use of the lottery was a distinctive hallmark of all democracies.

In ancient Athens, all executive and administrative offices and all juries were chosen by lot (with the exception of the city’s military commander, who was elected by the citizens). The political use of lotteries in antiquity insured a fair and random outcome; every citizen at some time in his life was likely to participate directly in political affairs. The drawing of lots insured the equality of all citizens: it negated the advantages otherwise enjoyed by dedicated politicos and their wealthy patrons.

Though juries in America to this day are partially chosen by lot — and so are 50,000 applicants annually for a visa — the United States famously did not emulate the institutions of democratic Athens. Instead of instituting lotteries for most public offices, the U.S. created a representative government, eventually founded on universal suffrage: the right of every citizen to cast a vote in periodic elections of state and federal legislators, executives, and (in some places) judges.

Of course, the United States has had to undergo a long and still unfinished journey to insure that every citizen, regardless of wealth, creed, color, or gender, in fact has an equal right to participate in the vote and in all the other forms of politics and voluntary association. But such participation was this nation’s birthright — for some of the founders in 1776, and certainly for Lincoln in 1863.

Today, however, this egalitarian legacy is jeopardized. We have become a staggeringly unequal society, de facto governed by a relatively small number of dedicated politicos and their wealthy patrons.

In ancient Athens, lotteries were used to guarantee that every citizen had an equal chance to participate directly in the city’s social and political life. By contrast, the rise of state-run lotteries in America has produced a very different result: A generation of poorer citizens, who in an earlier era might have gone to a union hall or a town meeting today turn instead to a scratch-and-win piece of cardboard, in hopes of striking it rich overnight.

This is a pathetic form of egalitarianism. But state-run lotteries may nevertheless help explain why alternative public policies meant to promote a more egalitarian society are now a political non-starter in a country still ostensibly dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

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James Miller

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