The cliché is that lotteries are a tax on the mathematically illiterate.
It's easy to have some sympathy for this position. "Did you know trying to get rich by playing the lottery is like trying to commit suicide by flying on commercial airlines?" These comparisons are superficially amusing but to look at lotteries in this rational way has seems to be, in itself, irrational and ignores the real motivations of the participants.
Even defined as a tax they are problematic – far from being progressive or redistributive, it has always seemed suspect when lottery money is spent proudly on highbrow projects such as concert hall restorations and theatre lighting rigs when — with little risk of exaggeration — there is zero overlap between the people who would benefit from the project and who funded it.
But no, what rankles me more about our lotteries isn't the unsound economics of buying a ticket or even that it's a state-run monopoly, but rather the faux philanthropic way it manages to evade all criticism by talking about the "good causes" it is helping.
Has our discourse become so relative and non-judgemental that when we are told that the lottery does some good, however slight, we are willing to forgive all of the bad? Isn't there something fundamentally dishonest about disguising nascent avarice, cupidity, escapism and being part of some shared cultural event — that are surely the only incentives to play this game — with some shallow feel-good fluff about good causes? And where are the people doing real good in communities complaining about this corrupting lucre, or are they just happy to take the money and don't want to ask too many awkward questions..?
"Vices are not crimes" claims Lysander Spooner, and I would not want to legislate that citizens cannot make dubious investments in any market, let alone a "lottery market", but we should at least be able to agree that this nasty regressive tax should enjoy no protection nor special privileges from the state, and it should be incapable of getting away with deflecting criticism with a bunch of photogenic children from an inner-city estate clutching a dozen branded footballs.