As King Solomon proclaimed in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun. Mississippi is thinking about a state lottery. This debate goes way back.
Lotteries helped fund the American colonies, going all the way back to Jamestown. In early American history, legislators commonly authorized lotteries to fund schools, roads, bridges, and other public works.
Then around 1830, evangelical reformers began denouncing lotteries on moral grounds. Scandals and corruption among lottery companies strengthened the reformers. By 1860, 47 American states and most European countries had banned lotteries. The Louisiana State Lottery, known for its corruption, was one of the last to fall in 1868. Then in 1895 the U.S. Congress banned lotteries throughout the United States.
And so it was until scratch cards were re-introduced in the 1970s. Today, state-supported lotteries exist in 47 states, raising about $20 billion in revenue. A good portion of that money goes to fund public works such as roads and education. Mississippi, along with Alabama and Nevada, are the lone holdouts. No doubt Nevada doesn’t have a lottery because the gaming industry sees it as competition and has used its influence to stop it. Similar forces are surely at work in Mississippi.
The libertarian in me tends to believe that gambling should be an individual choice. I believe in the free market. State lotteries, however, are a bit different. Rather than the state taxing gambling, it’s as though the state becomes the gambling house itself. How ironic to live in a state where we need to smoke, drink and gamble so we can pay to educate our children. Something is wrong with that picture.
Politicians are terrified of raising taxes, lest they get defeated. Anti-tax super PACs now make politicians sign pledges not to raise taxes for any reason lest they lose PAC funding or, worse, their opponent gets the funding they would lose.
The lottery, in essence, is a cop-out, driven by politicians too afraid to raise taxes. Think of it as a voluntary tax, since nobody is forced to buy a lottery ticket. But the fact of the matter is lotteries prey on lower-income people who perhaps are not always the best at making good financial decisions. Indeed, the lowest-income people end up spending six percent of their income on lottery tickets.
The increasing dependence on lotteries to fund our schools is just one more example of the overall decline in morality our country has experienced for the last 60 years. In essence, the lottery is a tax on the weak and vulnerable because our state leaders don’t have the guts to raise money through legitimate means.
We see the same thing in our criminal justice system. Fines for misdemeanors have escalated rapidly to make up for tax shortfalls. As it turns out, the people most likely to get in trouble over minor violations of the law are those who can least afford to pay these fines and least likely to keep a court date. When they fail to pay or show up, more fines ensue, until these detail-challenged individuals become expensive wards of the state, fodder for a multi-billion-dollar criminal justice system.
Northsider Louis Lyell diverted my attention to the lottery issue. He sent me an old book called “The Lottery,” written by Yazoo City native Rev. Beverly Carradine. Rev. Carradine passed away in 1931 after mounting a relentless crusade against the Louisiana Lottery Company while he was pastor of the Carondelet Street Methodist Church in New Orleans. He was instrumental in getting the state lottery repealed.
Many years have passed since those days, but his words bear repeating even today as the Mississippi Legislature considers the creation of a statewide lottery to plug the budget shortfall. I quote:
“We all know that the poor constitute the overwhelming majority of any country’s population. If they suffer, then the greater part, if not all, the nation suffers. Where is the wisdom of tolerating an institution that helps the few and injures the many? Where is the patience of a people in permitting in its borders a corporation that afflicts the poor, the very class that can least afford to suffer?
“The proof that the Lottery steadily drains people of humble means was beheld in the city of Paris the first year after its ejection from France. In less than twelve months after its abolition, scores of millions of francs were deposited by the poorer classes in the savings banks. Here was a fact, eloquent, indisputable and convincing. The same result would be beheld here if the legislature would free us of this monstrous parasite that draws its life from us and then blights us with the shadow of its huge proportions.
“I want you to think of the suffering entailed upon the innocent. Think of the wife without proper food and without sufficient clothing. Think of the children without books, without shoes and without fire. Think of the home without music or pictures or literature or comforts – yea, without the necessaries of life.
“Married women by hundreds invest the money set apart for home expenses. The father often wonders that the children are not better dressed, nor the house and table better furnished. The explanation can only be found in the cash receipts of the Louisiana State Lottery.
“Neither is this all. Clerks are stealing from the cash drawers of their employers. One young man in this city had stolen three thousand dollars before he was discharged. A merchant informs me that his bookkeeper purloined over six thousand dollars between the months of April and August. I verily believe that if we had the money that is being stolen and has been stolen to find its way into the Lottery, we could pave the streets of New Orleans from end to end, take care of the Charity Hospital and build other monuments of good that would last for ages.
“Another charge I make is that it is the cause of suicide. If you question this, come to my study, and I will privately give you the facts. Perhaps you know of such cases. Only a few days ago a gentleman informed me of a young lady residing in a certain city who invested all of her little possessions in the great abomination and, reduced to poverty and despair, deliberately took her life.
“How would you like to be identified with or have any interest in such an institution? What thoughts will revolve in the dying mind, as the remembrance fastens itself in that last trying hour, that he gained his bread and obtained his fortune through such an enterprise of destruction?”
Wyatt Emmerich is the president of Emmerich Newspapers, Inc. in Jackson.