State Lotteries by A. A. Milne

The popular argument against the State Lottery is an assertion that it will encourage the gambling spirit. The popular argument in favour of the State Lottery is an assertion that it is hypocritical to say that it will encourage the gambling spirit, because the gambling spirit is already amongst us. Having listened to a good deal of this sort of argument on both sides, I thought it would be well to look up the word “gamble” in my dictionary. I found it next to “gamboge,” and I can now tell you all about it.

To gamble, says my dictionary, is “to play for money in games of skill or chance,” and it adds the information that the word is derived from the Anglo-Saxon gamen, which means “a game”. Now, to me this definition is particularly interesting, because it justifies all that I have been thinking about the gambling spirit in connexion with Premium Bonds. I am against Premium Bonds, but not for the popular reason. I am against them because (as it seems to me) there is so very little of the gamble about them. And now that I have looked up “gamble” in the dictionary, I see that I was right. The “chance” element in a state lottery is obvious enough, but the “game” element is entirely absent. It is nothing so harmless and so human as the gambling spirit which Premium Bonds would encourage.

We play for money in games of skill or chance–bridge, for instance. But it isn’t only of the money we are thinking. We get pleasure out of the game. Probably we prefer it to a game of greater chance, such as vingt-et-un. But even at vingt-et-un or baccarat there is something more than chance which is taking a hand in the game; not skill, perhaps, but at least personality. If you are only throwing dice, you are engaged in a personal struggle with another man, and you are directing the struggle to this extent, that you can call the value of the stakes, and decide whether to go on or to stop. And is there any man who, having made a fortune at Monte Carlo, will admit that he owes it entirely to chance? Will he not rather attribute it to his wonderful system, or if not to that, at any rate to his wonderful nerve, his perseverance, or his recklessness?

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The “game” element, then, comes into all these forms of gambling, and still more strongly does it pervade that most common form of gambling, betting on horses. I do not suggest that the street-corner boy who puts a shilling both ways on Bronchitis knows anything whatever about horses, but at least he thinks he does; and if he wins five shillings on that happy afternoon when Bronchitis proves himself to be the 2.30 winner, his pleasure will not be solely in the money. The thought that he is such a skilful follower of form, that he has something of the national eye for a horse, will give him as much pleasure as can be extracted from the five shillings itself.

This, then, is the gambling spirit. It has its dangers, certainly, hut it is not entirely an evil spirit. It is possible that the State should not encourage it, but it is not called upon to exorcise it with bell, and book, and candle. I am not sure that I should favour a State gamble, but my arguments against it would be much the same as my arguments against State cricket or the solemn official endowment and recognition of any other jolly game. However, I need not trouble you with those arguments now, for nothing so harmless as a State gamble has ever been suggested. Instead, we have from time to time a State lottery offered to us, and that is a very different proposition.

For in a State lottery–with daily prizes of L50,000–the game (or gambling) element does not exist. Buy your L100 bond, as a thousand placards will urge you to do, and you simply take part in a cold-blooded attempt to acquire money without working for it. You can take no personal interest whatever in the manner of acquiring it. Somebody turns a handle, and perhaps your number comes out. More probably it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, you can call yourself a fool for having thrown away your savings; if it does–well, you have got the money. May you be happy with it! But you have considerably less on which to congratulate yourself than had the street-corner boy who backed Bronchitis. He had an eye for a horse. Probably you hadn’t even an eye for a row of figures.

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Moreover, the State would be giving its official approval to the unearned fortune. In these days, when the worker is asking for a week of so many less hours and so many more shillings, the State would answer: “I can show you a better way than that. What do you say to no work at all, and L20 a week for it?” At a time when the one cry is “Production!” the State adds (behind its hand), “Buy a Premium Bond, and let the other man produce for you.” After all these years in which we have been slowly progressing towards the idea of a more equitable distribution of wealth, the Government would show us the really equitable way; it would collect the savings of the many, and re-distribute them among the few. Instead of a million ten-pound citizens, we should have a thousand ten-thousand-pounders and 999,000 with nothing. That would be the official way of making the country happy and contented. But, in fact, our social and political controversies are not kept alive by such arguments as these, nor by the answers which can legitimately be made to such arguments. The case of the average man in favour of State lotteries is, quite simply, that he does not like Dr. Clifford. The case of the average man against State lotteries is equally simple; he cannot bear to be on the same side as Mr. Bottomley.

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