REV. ERNEST HOWSE says: legal lotteries are worse than useless

July 25 1964

REV. ERNEST HOWSE says: legal lotteries are worse than useless

July 25 1964

REV. ERNEST HOWSE says: legal lotteries are worse than useless


CANADA Is MOVING surely and stupidly in the direction of state-run lotteries and sweepstakes. The Royal Commission on Health Services gave the idea a tremendous boost in respectability a few weeks ago when it said the provinces might use lotteries, among other things, to help pay for a national medicare plan. The legislatures of both Quebec and Ontario were already on record as favoring legal lotteries and in the federal House five MPs were promoting bills to amend the Criminal Code's restrictions on sw’eepstakes. The Canadian Trades and Labor Council, the Canadian Legion and several hundred municipalities have all voted to legalize lotteries and a poll by the Canadian Institute of Public Opinion indicates that seventy-three percent of us favor “running big sweepstakes and lotteries to help pay for education and public health.” Mrs. Mary English, a Calgary grandmother whose hobby is driving around the country to collect signatures on behalf of lotteries, says that so many Canadians agree with her nowthat “only the higher-ups in the church frown on the idea. They are a bunch of hypocrites.”

Canadians, I'm afraid, would vote for lotteries as speedily as they’d vote for lower taxes (many people, in fact, confuse the two). I’m probably inviting further abuse from lotterylovers like Mrs. English but I want to say, before it's too late, that government-sponsored lotteries would be a disaster for Canada. Public

lotteries are evil, impractical, hopelessly uneconomic and historically indefensible. Indeed, they are so stupid on so many grounds that I'm genuinely puzzled by Canadians' continuing eagerness to embrace them. Em not puzzled at all about the motives of the politicians who promote the idea. It sounds to them like a painless way to suck money from voters who are fed up with high taxes. Premier Lesage says he wants lotteries “to ease the burden on the small taxpayer” but the only burden such lotteries could possibiy ease would be a political burden on the government of Quebec. A government that believes its people can afford lottery tickets, but still hasn’t the guts to levy sufficient taxes for hospitals and schools, is unfit for office.

J am a United Church minister and therefore many readers will automatically assume that my distaste for lotteries stems entirely from stuffy, moral objections. Well, I do regard organized gambling, along with drunkenness and prostitution, as one of mankind's most enduring social evils. Lotteries appeal to cupidity rather than responsibility and w'hile ! doubt ihat governments should (or could) outlaw all gambling, I insist that they have no business promoting it.

But leaving aside the moral question altogether, the arguments against legal lotteries are still overwhelming, or should be. In the first place, lotteries couldn’t even begin to provide any of the services they're supposed to finance. Ireland's few hospitals, after thirty-three years of sweepstakes, are still in poor circumstances. They no longer get much in the way of private donations. The sweepstake there grosses something like twenty million dollars a year but only four million of that ever gets to the hospitals. In Canada, hospital maintenance costs more than eight hundred million dollars a year. As The Financial Post said last fall. “Canadian sweepstakes equal to that created by Ireland would keep Canadian hospitals going only for four days, and (would direct) not a cent toward new construction.” Dr. Harvey Agnew, a past president of the Canadian Hospital Association, says that if Canada were to run sweepstakes along Irish lines we'd have to sell four billion dollars’ worth of tickets every year to meet our national hospital bill.


The persistence of such suggestions strikes me as ominous. I believe that if we accept lotteries as a legitimate way to raise money for worthy purposes we’ll soon have chaotic competition for the armchair gambler’s money. A royal commission in Britain said that once lotteries are legalized there’s no fair way to grant them to some causes and deny them to others (it also said public lotteries were burdensome, pernicious and unproductive). The Irish sweepstakes have very little competition now' and offer enormous prizes. To compete, Canadian government lottery prizes would have to be just as fat. Then the provinces would certainly want to have lotteries of their own and we might, quite possibly, find ourselves with eleven governments and innumerable goodly organizations, all promoting rival versions of the Irish sweepstakes — and, of course, feeding the gambling habit.

None of this would be quite so bad if lotteries weren’t one of the most inefficient money-raising gimmicks ever dreamed up by government. As Sir George Foster said in the Canadian Commons thirty - odd years ago, “Lotteries are based on no economic or financial ground that can for a moment be upheld.” Normally, the government or Good Cause gets less than a fifth of the money put up by the ticket buyers. The French government abandoned public lotteries in the 1930s after it calculated that only three and a half percent of the revenue from ticket sales was

reaching the treasury. The fact that a later government re-established them only compounds the folly. I think Premier Lesage might consider such facts before he talks about relieving the little man's tax burden.

But perhaps the worst feature of public lotteries is that they are — and have always been — a soft touch for criminals. In England the frauds involving public lotteries were so rife and so ingenious during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that Parliament passed nine different lotteries Acts to foil the crooks. Finally, in 1823, the government gave up and simply outlawed lotteries. The pattern w-as the same in the United States; the longer state lotteries survived, the smellier they grew. Before the end of the last century they were outlawed there too.


Lottery promoters, like people who favor legal off-track betting, frequently assume that all you have to do to drive the hoods out of gambling is to set up a legal gambling apparatus and thereby make the criminals unnecessary. This is naïve. More than ten years ago, the U.S. Senate committee on organized crime in the United States showed that all gambling, even when legalized, is a constant source of corruption. U. S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy reported recently that FBI investigations prove beyond doubt that gambling, every? where, inspires racketeering and that even the most playful little flyer may help finance a dope peddler, a bootlegger, a white slaver or a confidence man. Organized crime in both Canada and the United States has managed to suck large amounts of money from such modest legal gambling events as service-club bingo games. Em sure that if the Mafia w'atches Canada at all. it's delighted by our drift toward legal lotteries.

Ed like to rest my case against lotteries on the w'ords of two men: Henry Fielding, the eighteenth-century author of Tom Jones, and former New York governor Thomas Dewey. A few years ago Dewey said lotteries offer “nothing but poverty, crime and corruption, demoralization of moral and ethical standards, and ultimately a lower living standard and misery for all the people.” Dewey’s words'are good advice for Canadians right now and, though Fielding was writing in 1723, his words are sound counsel too:

A lottery is a taxation Upon all the fools in creation;

A nd, Heaven be praised,

It is easily raised,

Credulity’s always in fashion.

For Folly’s a fund Will never lose ground,

While fools are so rife in the nation.

Dr. Hawse is minister of Bloor Street United Church in Toronto.