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International Journal of Applied Philosophy

Volume 13, Issue 2, Fall 1999

Verna V. Gehring
Pages 223-238

The American State Lottery
Sale or Swindle?

Despite worries about the fairness of lotteries or the sources of the human psyche’s strong attraction to them, Americans have made lotteries a part of their civic lives. The popularity of gaming does not, however, gainsay the unease many Americans feel about state sponsorship of lotteries. The debates that surrounded the introduction of lotteries remain to this day, but the arguments are tired and the camps deadlocked. One camp argues that a lottery is simply a properly randomized drawing that determines who among a freely chosen group of participants shall be awarded all or some of the monetary contributions of the group. These proponents suggest that the randomness of the drawing and the autonomy of the participants render the lottery fair and sponsorship by the state unobjectionable. Opponents of state-supported gambling argue, by contrast, that states market lotteries by making inappropriate emotional appeals and by supplying information of dubious veracity. Consequently, so this group argues, lotteries must be judged as unfair gaming devices and state support viewed as improper. I shall show that both camps have fundamentally misunderstood the problem. Evaluating whether state lotteries are sales or swindles relies neither on an analysis of subjective attitudes nor on an examination of purely procedural aspects of play. Correct analysis depends on a determination of what lotteries are. That is, there is a difference between claiming what a lottery does and what it claims to be, between how it works and what it is. If a lottery is claimed to be something that it is not, then regardless of what one gets for one’s money, one has been swindled. I will show that performing an ontological examination of the state-supported lottery reveals it to be a swindle. I conclude by suggesting that some of the confusion regarding the legitimacy of the state-sponsored lottery stems from misunderstandings of several tenets of liberalism. It is these misunderstandings that at times are employed to justify lotteries.

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