William Petty? Henry Fielding? Adam Smith? Camillo Benso? James Wolcott? Marshall McLuhan? Roger Jones? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The winners of a recent lottery jackpot split more than one billion dollars. Yet the probability of a lucky lottery strike is smaller than an unlucky lightning strike. Economists, mathematicians, and wits have made sardonic remarks like the following:
- A lottery is tax on stupidity.
- The lottery is a tax on fools.
- Lotteries are a tax on the mathematically challenged.
Who you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: Finding the earliest instances of this sentiment is difficult because expressions are variable. QI has located an example in the 1662 document “A Treatise of Taxes and Contributions” by the prominent English economist Sir William Petty. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
Now in the way of Lottery men do also tax themselves in the general, though out of hopes of Advantage in particular: A Lottery therefore is properly a Tax upon unfortunate self-conceited fools; men that have good opinion of their own luckiness, or that have believed some Fortune-teller or Astrologer, who had promised them great success about the time and place of the Lottery, lying Southwest perhaps from the place where the destiny was read.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The well-known English novelist Henry Fielding who authored “Tom Jones” also wrote plays such as “The Lottery: A Farce” in 1732 which contained the following song with music by Mr. Seedo: 2
A Lottery is a Taxation,
Upon all the Fools in Creation;
And Heaven be prais’d,
It is easily rais’d,
Credulity’s always in Fashion:
For, Folly’s a Fund,
Will never lose Ground,
While Fools are so rife in the Nation.
In 1734 the song lyrics were reprinted in the London periodical “The Weekly Amusement”. 3
In 1776 the famous Scottish economist Adam Smith discussed lotteries in his landmark work on “The Wealth of Nations”. Smith asserted that a common defect in human reasoning led people to buy lottery tickets: 4
The chance of gain is by every man more or less over-valued, and the chance of loss is by most men under-valued, and by scarce any man, who is in tolerable health and spirits, valued more than it is worth.
That the chance of gain is naturally overvalued, we may learn from the universal success of lotteries.
Smith discussed flawed motivations, but he did not label lottery players foolish of stupid:
The soberest people scarce look upon it as a folly to pay a small sum for the chance of gaining ten or twenty thousand pounds; though they know that even that small sum is perhaps twenty or thirty per cent more than the chance is worth.
In 1884 several U.S. newspapers mentioned a successful lottery held in Italy, and attributed a cynical remark about it to the Italian statesman Camillo Benso: 5
From 1863 to 1883 the lottery players turned into the Royal Italian Treasury $275,000,000. Count Cavour used to call the lottery “the tax on fools.”
In 1893 “The Sun” newspaper of New York City recalled the statement of William Petty: 6
In the face of this fact it was of no use for the great economist Sir William Petty . . . to describe the lottery as “a tax on unfortunate self-conceited fools.” On the contrary, this verdict of Sir William Petty may almost be thought to-day to offer a most cogent reason for establishing and maintaining public lotteries all over the world.
In 1951 an Associated Press article included an anonymous version of the saying with the word “stupidity”: 7
This Is “Lotto,” a 400-year-old gambling game. It is state controlled. It is hard to win at the game—so hard that it is called “the tax on stupidity.” But, throughout the years, there has been no drop in its popularity and countless poverty-stricken Italians pin their hopes on it for a better life.
In 1993 cultural critic James Wolcott writing in “Spy” magazine of New York ascribed an instance to media theorist Marshall McLuhan: 8
McLuhan described the lottery as a tax on the ignorant…
In 1998 a Florida newspaper quoted a mathematician who employed an instance: 9
But it is often pointed out that people have a much better chance of being struck by lightning (one in 9,000), or dying on a 50-mile drive (one in 1,000,000) than winning a lottery.
“I guess I think of lotteries as a tax on the mathematically challenged,” said Roger Jones, professor of mathematics at DePaul University in Chicago.
In conclusion, economist Sir William Petty asserted that the lottery was comparable to a tax on fools in 1662. A song in a play by Henry Fielding made a similar claim in 1732. Economist Adam Smith discussed the subject, and he used the word “folly”, but he did not make a matching remark in “Wealth of Nations”.
(Great thanks to AJ Sánchez whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1662, Title: A treatise of taxes and contributions shewing the nature and measures of [brace] crown-lands, assessments, customs, poll-moneys, lotteries, benevolence, penalties, monopolies, offices, tythes, raising of coins, harth-money, excize, &c., Author: Sir William Petty (1623-1687), Chapter VIII: Of Lotteries, Quote Page 46, Publisher: Printed for N. Brooke, London. (Early English Books Online) ↩
- 1733, The Lottery: A Farce, As It Is Acted at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane by His Majesty’s Servants. Written by Henry Fielding, Scene 1, Quote Page 5, Printed for N. Newman, London. (Play was performed in 1732) (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1734 January 25, The Weekly Amusement: Or, The Universal Magazine, Volume 1, Song III From the Lottery by Mr. Seedo, Quote Page 302, Printed for J. and T. Dormer, London. (Play was performed in 1732) (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1776, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, Volume 1 of 2, Quote Page 132, Printed for W. Strahan and T. Cadell, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1884 October 30, The Morning News, Varieties (Short Untitled Item),Quote Page 4, Column 2,Wilmington, Delaware. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1893 January 15, The Sun, Italy’s State Lotteries, Quote Page 16, Column 1, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1951 September 1, Des Moines Tribune, Italians Have Lottery ‘Fever’ (Associated Press), Quote Page 6, Column 2, Des Moines, Iowa. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1993 September, Spy, Critic’s Picks: The Telly: Hot Number by James Wolcott, Quote Page 63, Column 1, SPY Corporation, New York (Now Sussex Publishers). (Google Books Full View) ↩
- 1998 May 22, The Orlando Sentinel, ‘Friends will drink free for rest of their lives’, Quote Page A6, Column 6, Orlando, Florida. (Newspapers_com) ↩