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If you are inclined to want to put people into groups like “Classical Liberal” so be it … I find it increasingly not useful. But you may put that particular label in your head for now, or perhaps the “libertarian” label. My sense is that if you asked a particular group member what they thought of State Run Lotteries, they would react with revulsion and disgust. Why? Well, the “state” generates billions of dollars every year (my guess is in the $50 billion range, but a quick dig through some data sources doesn’t seem to have it all in one place). That’s bad enough for some group members. What else goes on? Well, the money is often said to go to support schooling in the state that it is operated – you may even have to watch TV commercials celebrating this fact like the one currently airing in New York State that has a youth chorus appear from the back of a convenience store as an unsuspecting Lotto player looks on.

And why is that bad? Well, my bet is that very few of the lottery dollars actually end up in schools – and indeed, maybe the lottery money itself crowds out other support for schools. And finally my sense is that team members are going to excoriate the lotto for being regressive. The people who pay and play the Lotto are poorer than the recipients of the funds.

But I think the Lotto is inconvenient for team members – and for maybe two reasons. If you take for a moment, as a given, that the government must collect revenues, would not a team member cherish the opportunity for those revenues to be given voluntarily? It’s not at all clear to me that having the government collect lottery revenues should offend libertarians in the slightest. And the second reason this is inconvenient (or convenient, depending on how you spin this) is closely related. A lot of people, in this manner, gladly “donate” money to the government. A lot. I got to thinking that after hearing yet another tired libertarian talking point about “if you want to pay more taxes, you can do that on your return, yet no one actually does that.”

That line of argument is annoying, hurts “the cause” and is in fact disingenuous. I choose to pay more taxes than I need to by my location decisions, my spending decisions, and as in the case, by doing things like playing the Lotto. Just because folks don’t regularly check boxes on their tax returns doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen in some other way. Of course, to be fair, few people who play the lotto do so as a way to support schools. But when you play a 50-50 raffle at a sporting event, are you ONLY playing it for the chance to win cash? What leads you to believe that when it comes to Lotto we behave for one reason and when it is the Lions’ club 50-50 we do it for charitable reasons?

But what may or may not be cause for celebration is this. People do it. Poor people do it (donate to government via lottery, that is). So, does the fact that we CAN support some measure of a “voluntary” “government” mean the libertarian dream is closer than ever? Or, does the fact that no rich people play the Lotto actually undermine everything that libertarians argue about charitable giving, the rich and whether we could support a private safety net without the government?

There are of course many confounding factors and I am making something that is actually complicated into something simple for the sake of arguing, mostly with myself. So what do you think, does the lottery’s success pose an existential problem for libertarians?

9 Responses to “The Lottery and a “Group” with a Particular Label”

  1. Trapper_John says:

    Meh. There are so many more egregious offenses by our government that for libertarians to focus on the lotto seems foolish and self-defeating. The greatest strength (IMHO) of libertarianism is also its greatest weakness–the desire for intellectual consistency. If your experience was like mine, it all started with realizing the inherent discord of the two ruling parties’ platforms (freedom is OK here, but not there, mostly because of my preferences). While this realization of political purity is a great hook, the upshot is that newly minted (among other) libertarians are easily baited into discussions that make us look like extremists to most (“privatize all roads! abolish public schools! I should be allowed to own a rocket launcher!”). These sorts of positions are novelty views that will never materialize in reality, and they provide noise that crowds out the libertarian voice of sanity on subjects where it is needed most (cronyism, the war on drugs, etc., etc.). Being anti-Lotto isn’t quite to that extreme, but it seems like such a minor point (the spec in one eye when there is a log in the other eye) and a distraction rooted in the same desire for logical consistency to the Nth degree.

    • RIT_Rich says:

      Well, I wouldn’t be so quick to call “sanity” a lot of things that “libertarians” say these days. But of course, it depends on what kind of “libertarian” we’re talking about: http://www.hoover.org/publications/defining-ideas/article/167496

      In fact, this positioning of ideas as “sane” and “insane” is one of the defining characteristics of many self-described “libertarians” these days, which drives me bananas. There is nothing more insuferable than a smug ignorant Reason “correspondent” dismissing all arguments from everyone with a simple swipe of the hand a condescending “those people are crazy” smirk.

      Ultimately, that is the self-defeating eventuality of “libertarianism”, as it has become thanks to the Pauls, Reason, Mises.org and some others: intellectual feather-weight-ism. “We” went from Milton Friedman to…Ron Paul, in 10 years. Sad.

      • Gabe Wittenberg says:

        Like any political or philosophical affiliation, there are hordes of ignorant people crowding the blogosphere and confirming their biases. Ron Paul is a product of public choice theory, not a shift in preferences for those who value property rights and question the ability of arrogant elitists to make decisions for the poor, helpless masses. There may be a mainstream libertarian/conservative movement, but there are, and always will be a group of less vocal folks who have their philosophies grounded in the works of Human Action, The Wealth of Nations, or the Road to Serfdom.

        • RIT_Rich says:

          I’m not quite sure how Ron Paul is the product of “public choice theory”. As for the vast majority of self-professing “libertarians”, they have never read Human Action (although I’m not sure why one might want to read it. It’s basic principles are now mainstream to economics, and hence not particularly insightful when read on their own), the Road to Serfdom, and God knows they’ve never read The Wealth of Nations (although, that too, I’m not sure why one would want to read at this point. Certainly one shouldn’t read it alone without reading Smith’s only other book.)

          But, I’m also not sure why reading those books, or at least professing to their ideas is the measure of something good. Smith’s basic ideas are not very compatible with those of most self-professed “libertarians”, nor are Hayeks. Certainly, they’re not (really) all that compatible with the highly vocal Mises.org crowd.

          So yes, I’d say it matters which kind of “libertarian” we’re talking about. But at this stage of the game, the vocal kind and the kind that is most readily heard is the pop-culture “libertarian” whose understanding of why they say the things they say is about as deep as a glass of water. And this has done a great disservice, in my opinion, by turning what was an intellectual idea into a pop-culture idea, and thus deluded it to the level of “freedom good, government bad”. I may be drawing a bad caricature here, but all one has to do is go to the next public speaking presentation from one of the Mises.org people and see for themselves.

          • Gabe Wittenberg says:

            Because Ron Paul had to align with the far right in order to gain any traction in one of the two parties, going to neo-nazi rallies etc. He was subject to political incentives, just like any politician. Those in favor of allowing markets to determine prices owe public association with the tea-party too Rothbard and Paul. Bleeding Heart Libertarians exist; they just don’t like to shout as loudly as the corporatist/old angry white men who want to protect their entitlements at the expense of investments in infrastructure.

            The concepts are mainstream in books like “Human Action”, but the arguments are not. Running with a conclusion is not as valuable as understanding the premises and the argument itself. Some of this stuff is antiquated, to be sure, but these books provide a sound foundation in the praxeological sciences. And I don’t think the ideas from “Human Action” are too mainstream. If they were, we wouldn’t have food stamps, subsidized housing, etc. We might have an earned income tax instead of benefiting cronies with public housing contracts and the like.

          • RIT_Rich says:

            Gabe, don’t take this the wrong way, but you guys at CATO need to “get out more”, in terms of the sort of “economics” you read.

            And to be perfectly honest, I have extremely little respect for Rothbard (zero, actually). As for Paul, I think the best thing to happen to the GOP in a long time was his retirement.

            Long story short, the “hijacking” of “classical liberalism” or “libertarianism” in general by the these sorts of people, and these sorts of “ideas” has led to nothing short of intellectual suicide. Worst yet, it has led to people who speak to each other inside their echo boxes to think that the rest of the world is somehow “evil”, “stupid”, “crazy” etc. for not believing what they believe, even if they themselves may have no clue as to what the rest of “economics” or intellectuals in many other fields believe.

            This phenomenon, of course, is not uncommon in movements that have become devoid of intellectual rigor. And we have Rothbard and company, CATO, Reason, Paul and a few others to thank for that. If there is one thing you won’t find in mainstream “libertarian” movements today is a serious understanding of economics, society, or of what the “other” side thinks.

  2. Gabe Wittenberg says:

    In my opinion, this does nothing to undermine libertarianism. Putting another dollar into the machine, to watch it get blundered by a lawyer in Albany, isn’t the most rewarding or effective way to redistribute income. The 50-50 raffle at a football game goes to a cause that is relevant for all of the spectators (assuming it’s fund raising for the school involved), and there is much more transparency with these smaller scale organizations. I don’t have the time or motivation to add up all of the revenue from the lottery and compare it against the aggregate expenditures of public schools in NY, less federal aid, state aid, and property taxes. But new textbooks from raffle monies are a little easier to keep ones eye on, allowing them to see the benefits of their donation without squinting too hard.

  3. Scott says:

    If taxes must be collected, I suppose the lotto is the best way to do it. I certainly prefer it to the income tax. If I could be convinced that government spending could be fixed, and gains in revenues from the lotto would lower the income tax rate, I would vote to increase the role of the lotto in collecting state funds.

    Excellent post.

  4. Harry says:

    Nobody likes labels to classify our beliefs, WC. If we cooped up any two of your loyal readers in a room for an hour, I would expect a disagreement about a wide range of views about many subjects, although I would expect a lively discussion about epistemological limitations, regardless of who was in the room; and there would be objections to fallacies, too. WC would never invite uncivil epistemological deniers to his home, though he welcomes them by appointment to his office in the famous Harkness Hall.

    A long time ago I read a good piece written by Alan Greenspan in The Objectivist Newsletter about gold and money. I still remember his making a good argument, although no one should then classify me as a Randian follower of Nathaniel Brander nor a Greenspanian follower of Andrea Mitchell, nor whatever converted Alan Greenspan.

    Can we all agree, regardless of labels, that if everybody stops working we will go poor and hungry and thirsty? Does not someone out there need to dig a new well, or we going to keep fighting over the same spoiled free waterhole?

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