Thoughts on Lotteries

From The Insanity of Regulation

Thoughts on Lotteries
by Thomas Jefferson

February, 1826.

It is a common idea that games of chance are immoral. But
what is chance? Nothing happens in this world without a
cause. If we know the cause, we do not call it chance; but if
we do not know it, we say it was produced by chance. If we
see a loaded die turn its lightest side up, we know the cause, and
that it is not an effect of chance; but whatever side an unloaded
die turns up, not knowing the cause, we say it is the effect of
chance. Yet the morality of a thing cannot depend on our
knowledge or ignorance of its cause. Not knowing why a particular
side of an unloaded die turns up, cannot make the act of
throwing it, or of betting on it, immoral. If we consider games
of chance immoral, then every pursuit of human industry is
immoral; for there is not a single one that is not subject to chance,
not one wherein you do not risk a loss for the chance of some
gain. The navigator, for example, risks his ship in the hope (if
she is not lost in the voyage) of gaining an advantageous freight.
The merchant risks his cargo to gain a better price for it. A
landholder builds a house on the risk of indemnifying himself
by a rent. The hunter hazards his time and trouble in the hope
of killing game. In all these pursuits, you stake some one thing
against another which you hope to win. But the greatest of all
gamblers is the farmer. He risks the seed he puts into the
ground, the rent he pays for the ground itself, the year’s labor on
it, and the wear and tear of his cattle and gear, to win a crop,
which the chances of too much or too little rain, and general
uncertainties of weather, insects, waste, &c., often make a total
or partial loss. These, then, are games of chance. Yet so far
from being immoral, they are indispensable to the existence of
man, and every one has a natural right to choose for his pursuit
such one of them as he thinks most likely to furnish him sub-
sistence. Almost all these pursuits of chance produce something
useful to society. But there are some which produce nothing,
and endanger the well-being of the individuals engaged in them,
or of others depending on them. Such are games with cards,
dice, billiards, &c. And although the pursuit of them is a matter
of natural right, yet society, perceiving the irresistible bent of
some of its members to pursue them, and the ruin produced by
them to the families depending on these individuals, consider it
as a case of insanity, quoad hoc, step in to protect the family and
the party himself, as in other cases of insanity, infancy, imbecility,
&c., and suppress the pursuit altogether, and the natural
right of following it. There are some other games of chance,
useful on certain occasions, and injurious only when carried beyond
their useful bounds. Such are insurances, lotteries, raffles, &c.
These they do not suppress, but take their regulation under
their own discretion. The insurance of ships on voyages is a
vocation of chance, yet useful, and the right to exercise it there
fore is left free. So of houses against fire, doubtful debts, the
continuance of a particular life, and similar cases. Money is
wanting for a useful undertaking, as a school, &c., for which a
direct tax would be disapproved. It is raised therefore by a lottery ,
wherein the tax is laid on the willing only, that is to say, on
those who can risk the price of a ticket without sensible injury
for the possibility of a higher prize. An article of property,
insusceptible of division at all, or not without great diminution
of its worth, is sometimes of so large value as that no purchaser
can be found while the owner owes debts, has no other means
of payment, and his creditors no other chance of obtaining it
but by its sale at a full and fair price. The lottery is here a sal-
utary instrument for disposing of it, where many run small risks
for the chance of obtaining a high prize. In this way the great
estate of the late Colonel Byrd (in 1756) was made competent
to pay his debts, which, had the whole been brought into the
market at once, would have overdone the demand, would have
sold at half or quarter the value, and sacrificed the creditors, half
or three-fourths of whom would have lost their debts. This
method of selling was formerly very much resorted to, until it
was thought to nourish too much a spirit of hazard. The legislature
were therefore induced not to suppress it altogether, but
to take it under their own special regulation. This they did for
the first time by their act of 1769, c. 17, before which time every
person exercised the right freely ; and since which time, it is
made unlawful but when approved and authorized by a special
act of the legislature…


We have seen, then, that every vocation in life is subject to the
influence of chance; that so far from being rendered immoral by
the admixture of that ingredient, were they abandoned on that
account, man could no longer subsist; that, among them, every
one has a natural right to choose that which he thinks most likely
to give him comfortable subsistence; but that while the greater
number of these pursuits are productive of something which adds
to the necessaries and comforts of life, others again, such as cards,
dice, &c., are entirely unproductive, doing good to none, injury
to many, yet so easy, and so seducing in practice to men of a certain
constitution of mind, that they cannot resist the temptation, be
the consequences what they may; that in this case, as in those
of insanity, idiocy, infancy, &c., it is the duty of society to take
them under its protection, even against their own acts, and to
restrain their right of choice of these pursuits, by suppressing them
entirely; that there are others, as lotteries particularly, which,
although liable to chance also, are useful for many purposes, and
are therefore retained and placed under the discretion of the
Legislature, to be permitted or refused according to the circumstances
of every special case, of which they are to judge; that between
the years 1782 and 1820, a space of thirty-eight years only, we
have observed seventy cases, where the permission of them has
been found useful by the Legislature, some of which are in progress
at this time. These cases relate to the emolument of the whole
State, to local benefits of education, of navigation, of roads, of
counties, towns, religious assemblies, private societies, and of
individuals under particular circumstances which may claim
indulgence or favor. The latter is the case now submitted to the
Legislature, and the question is, whether the individual soliciting
their attention, or his situation, may merit that degree of
consideration which will justify the Legislature in permitting him
to avail himself of the mode of selling by lottery, for the purpose
of paying his debts.

The complete text of Thoughts on Lotteries in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson