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The tax on stupidity

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Friday, Aug 26, 2005

This may be an apocryphal story, but one of my friends knows a guy from college who won the lottery in Pennsylvania several years ago and will receive a thousand dollars a month for life, or something like that, on top of some huge lump sum he received when he won. By my friend’s account, winning the lottery ruined his life. Rather than finish school, he dropped out, and he remains in the tiny apartment in central Pennsylvania that he lived in when he won, doing little more than smoking really high-grade weed and playing the latest-generation video games.


This story confirms what social researchers claim about self-determination. People enjoy exerting their will and affecting the world much more than the actual specific consequences of that effort. In his magisterial The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, Robert Lane cites this finding of Martin Seligman’s: “When rats and pigeons are given a choice between getting free food and getting the same food for making responses, they choose to work. Infants smile at a mobile whose movements are contingent on their responses but not at a non-contingent mobile.” Instrumental operations, then, would seem to be pleasing for their own sake, not necessarily for the rewards, which turns the fundamental principle of classical economics—work is a disutility compensated by utility in wages—upside down. In fact we want so strongly to justify our rewards, to feel that we have determined them through our own efforts, that we believe the classical paradigm even though it doesn’t exactly hold. And it utterly decimates the phony tenet that income leads to greater life satisfaction, that money is an all-purpose good. As Lane explains, “The belief that one is effective is more closely associated with happiness than anything else, especially level of income, to which so much attention is paid in the American market society.” We want to do meaningful things much more than we want to have valuable things.


It’s despicable enough when our state governments promote lotteries—lotteries are like a tax on stupid people, and thir lot is already bad enough. We shouldn’t exploit them to pay for things whose burden should be shared—things we all want and need, such as better schools and health care. I’m sure some Gary Beckerites out there might argue that a lottery ticket is not a bad investment but a rational purchase of a product called hopefulness, which has an extremely temporary efficacy of which its users are fully aware. It’s a license to dream, they might say, an expenditure that provides much satisfaction in fantasizing what you would do if you’d win. Turns out that the fantasies are better than reality. Winning the lottery, earning a massive reward for doing absolutely nothing, destroys one’s ability to believe that there is a correlation between one’s material state and one’s own effort. You can no longer live the noble lie of autonomy. As a consequence, all effort is invalidated, and all will short-circuited. Without the illusion of control, there’s no point leaving the house. May as well play video games, where the illusion of control is restored.

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