Let's Be Glad North Dakota Doesn't Do Much With Our Lottery

I hate state-run lotteries. Not so much because I’m anti-gambling – I don’t enjoy gambling myself, but my libertarian position is that it should be legal – but because the states have essentially given themselves a monopoly on this sort of gambling.

And it’s hugely exploitive of people who ought to know better. In a recent article comparing North Dakota’s use of a state-run lottery to other states (North Dakota is the most restrained of the states in this area), we learn about a gentleman who lives in North Dakota but drives into Minnesota three times a day to buy lottery tickets he can’t get on the western side of the Red River:

Moham Mitchell spends a lot of money on lottery tickets here every week at the Orton’s gas station near the first exit off Interstate 94 past the state line.

He lives in West Fargo but admitted sheepishly he crosses the Red River three times a day to buy tickets for him and his girlfriend.

Many North Dakotans do the same thing, which Minnesota lottery officials believe is why Orton’s, along with two other gas stations in border cities, are among the top lottery retailers in all of Minnesota despite the cities’ small populations. …

In North Dakota, stores may only sell Powerball and other draw games where players have to wait for the winning numbers to be drawn.

Mitchell said he prefers the instant gratification of scratch games because he knows if he’s a winner as soon as he scratches a ticket.

“They don’t sell them in North Dakota,” he said.

There’s a lesson here about state prohibition in the face of demand. People want what they want, even if it’s bad for them (and a three-times-a-day lottery habit isn’t good), and the state’s ability to restrict their behavior is limited. Which is why, for all the trillions spent on enforcement of laws prohibiting gambling and prostitution and drugs, we haven’t put a dent in any of those behaviors.

Supply is as plentiful as its ever been. Because laws are static, and markets are dynamic.

I’m not for restricting people’s choices when the only justification is that they’re harming themselves. But does our government need to profit from it?

North Dakota doesn’t get a lot of revenue from gambling. The state is at about $16 million per biennium, or about $38 per resident (compared to the national average of $228 per resident among states that have a lottery). And some of that money is funneled into the state’s only gambling addiction program – about $400,000 per biennium.

But still. It’s distasteful.

The lottery is an ugly sort of gambling. There’s an air of desperation about it. It’s not like poker or horse racing where there’s sporting or entertainment value. But the lottery is all about crushed dreams.

There’s an old saw about how the lottery is a “tax on people who don’t know how to do math.” I’ve laughed at that a few times, but it isn’t so funny when you realize that it’s sort of true. The lottery takes money from people who don’t know any better, and states like North Dakota have given themselves a monopoly on that cruel enterprise.

I have little sympathy for fools who can’t afford to play the lottery but do so anyway. But that doesn’t have to mean I like my state government taking their money.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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