Against Contests

Our society has a problem (there are many others of course), and it is our obsession with playing the lottery. The amount of time and money spent on lotteries and other similar contests (scratch-and-win, online contests, etc.) is so grossly disproportionate with the likelihood that any one individual will come away ‘winning’ anything. While society tends to look down on ‘gambling’ (poker’s place under that rubric will have to wait for a future post), everyone loves the chance to enter one’s name for a draw or prize of some kind. The problem is, that in efface they are the same thing. And the problem, further, is that since they are not viewed as the same thing, businesses of every kind take full advantage of that perceived difference and offer customers contests at every turn. And it’s not just the productivity that is lost from spending some of one’s time scratching-and-not-winning instead of spending time with the family or working. Rather, it is the mindset that pervades the society as a result of the ubiquity of contests. This mindset is a variant of The American Dream, the only — and crucial — difference being that the thought behind The American Dream was that if one worked hard enough, they could achieve anything, whereas this ‘contest mindset’ seems to say that if one is lucky enough they can achieve anything.

Now I am no expert in economic matters, but it would seem to me that the contests that businesses run, while they undoubtedly make the companies money (if they didn’t, one would expect that there wouldn’t be any more contests), are a wholly immoral use of the money the companies have. If, say, a grocery store runs a contest where one lucky winner walks away with $100,000 (and other lesser winners get TVs, golf sets, etc.) wouldn’t it stand to reason that all of the money put into the contest is actually money taken away from the customers in the form of raise prices? If that contest costs $500,000 to run, and it doesn’t cost any extra to enter the contest, then the company must be expected to re-coop that money through the products they sell. It seems like raising grocery prices for all so that all can enter, while most fail, to win prizes, while perfectly capitalistic, is a very unreasonable thing to do. And if that money is not going to go back into the groceries themselves, why not partner with a shelter or other suitable charity so that less food goes to waste from the store?

Should it be illegal? That might be harder to argue, but considering that, if my analysis is anywhere near right, and the prices of staple goods are becoming more expensive to ‘fund’ the contest, it seems straight-forward that the people who need to buy those goods — namely everyone — and especially those who struggle to afford them, ought to have a say in whether their prices are subject to change at the whim of a businessman (or -woman).

That argument puts businesses whose sole purpose is to sell (e.g.) lottery tickets in ever murkier waters. While we live in a society where anyone can create a product, or a good, and sell it on the open market with few restrictions as to the motive for doing so other than making a profit, I wonder whether more restrictions ought to be enforced, at least when it comes to feeding a potentially addictive drive to continue buying lottery tickets on the chance that I win big and never have to worry about money again. Since, on the whole, this will end up making many more people’s financial situations worse off, rather than better (other than for the minuscule few who do win), why is this practiced not only allowed, but openly admired in our society (just watch advertisements for lotteries)?

As one of the unique problems of a capitalist society where wealth disparity is widening at an alarming rate, this is the type of thing that needs to be addressed. Life is enough of a lottery without everyone throwing their hard-earned money, and their precious time, into other lotteries where they know — if they think about it — that they will remain on the losing end.

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