The British State Lotteries

Often denounced by moralists and economic experts, writes Robert Woodhall, public lotteries flourished in England from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I until their abolition in 1826.

“A lottery is properly a tax upon unfortunate, self-conceited fools; now because the world abounds with this kind of fools it is not fit that every man that will may cheat every man that would be cheated, but it is rather ordained that the Sovereign should have the guardianship of these fools, or that some Favourite should beg the Sovereign’s right of taking advantage of such men’s folly.”

So, in his Treatise of Taxes and Contributions, did the eminent seventeenth-century political economist Sir William Petty put the case for the state lottery in Britain. He put it acutely and with a hint of humour. He also put it without enthusiasm, and in this he was not alone.

Most of those who gave serious consideration to the subject, or, at all events, were in a position to disseminate their views, seem to have doubted the propriety of the state’s being officially concerned with this or with any other form of gambling.

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