The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ohio’s vaccine lottery scheme is working — so why does it bother us?

Lotteries were once vehicles for the public good. But then Americans got skeptical about the role of chance.

Ohio's covid-19 mass vaccination clinic at Cleveland State University in Cleveland. (Tony Dejak/AP)

Last Wednesday, 22-year-old Abbigail Bugenske became a millionaire thanks to Ohio’s new lottery scheme aimed at boosting coronavirus vaccination rates. Gov. Mike DeWine (R) enacted the program, which enters all vaccinated adults in weekly lottery drawings for $1 million, and awards five lucky vaccinated teenagers full scholarships at an Ohio public university of their choice. The plan seems to have worked: In the program’s first week, the state recorded “a 28 percent increase in the vaccination rate of those 16 and older.”

Yet DeWine has faced pushback from critics on all sides. State Rep. Jena Powell (R) called the scheme a “PR stunt,” and the state House Democratic Minority Leader Rep. Emilia Strong Sykes opined that “using millions of dollars in relief funds in a drawing is a grave misuse of money.”

Although a favorable editorial in the Toledo Blade called the scheme “shocking and quirky,” in the not-so-distant past Colonial and early state legislatures routinely used lottery drawings to promote the public good. The history of these lotteries — and the critiques that slowly made them morally suspect — help explain both DeWine’s decision to create them and the pushback he is receiving.

During the 18th century, Colonial — and later state — legislatures routinely used lotteries to promote public welfare. In New York, for instance, at least 15 authorized lotteries were held between 1721 and 1776. Those interested in establishing a lottery to fund a public service could petition the legislature, which, if it deemed the cause worthy, authorized the lottery by statute. The lottery grants drawn up by the state assembly usually stipulated who could manage the lottery, the cost of tickets and the way that tickets would be drawn.

Lotteries were used to fund diverse projects: In 1746, one lottery was held for “the more effectual fortifying the city of New York,” another to found King’s College and, in 1756, to finance the construction of a jail for prisoners of war.

Most 18th-century observers recognized lotteries as a benign, noncorrupting means to promote public works. Lotteries fit nicely within the prevailing view of how a society should operate — as a series of what the historian Charles Sellers called “well-ordered communities united in the pursuit of ethical ends.”

Lotteries harnessed the socially disruptive human proclivity to gamble and neutralized its damaging effects by channeling it to fund publicly beneficial projects. Most thought that lotteries were a preferable alternative to traditional forms of taxation because they invited individuals to participate voluntarily and affected everyone equally.

Chance, then, was conceptualized as an egalitarian force, which lotteries actively engaged. Rich people, poor people, White People, Black people — all stood equal before chance’s merry wheel. Lotteries were understood within this communitarian framework — which is why New York imposed a ban on privately held lotteries in 1721. The ban was established because people who sought to harness chance for private gain were seen as morally bankrupt, and because private lotteries often transcended state boundaries. Participating in out-of-state lotteries drained resources that could have been directed toward the public betterment of one’s own community.

During the early 19th century, however, lotteries became subject to moral critique, and by mid-century most states had outlawed them.

This shift in opinion mirrored the emergence of an increasingly integrated national market whose dictates would erode traditional modes of economic interaction and whose impersonal power would establish chance as an arbiter of economic success or failure. In the last decade of the 18th century, New York City surpassed Philadelphia as the country’s financial and commercial capital. With increased wealth came increased inequality. A mercantile elite produced vast fortunes by exploiting newly opened western markets, and a steady stream of rural migrants fueled the prodigious increase of a transient urban underclass. Most urban laborers existed between these two poles, however, and occupied a hierarchical position within a city’s artisan craft economy.

In New York, public opinion turned against lotteries during the very decades the craft system began to crumble. Although the master/journeyman system persisted until the Civil War, by 1815 entrepreneurial-minded masters began capitalizing upon what historian Sean Wilentz described as a “swelling labor pool” to rearrange the structure of “small-shop production.” Thanks to increasing divisions of labor, by 1815 over half of urban “working-class people” were left “without skills or property.” During the second decade of the 19th century, Wilentz argued, journeymen “encountered a life of chance, their prospects hanging on a lucky break.”

As a national economy solidified, it introduced new segments of society to speculative economic opportunities, and the economic risks that they entailed. The prescient observer of antebellum America Alexis de Tocqueville and many other observers realized that chance, just as much as moral strength or business acumen, was increasingly determining the economic fate of many Americans. To Tocqueville, “commercial business” in the United States resembled “a vast lottery, by which a small number of men continually lose, but the state is always the gainer.”

As luck became an increasingly evident factor in sorting out economic winners and losers, cultural commentators struggled to ascribe a moral valence to concepts like chance, luck, providence and speculation. Antebellum business periodicals and other popular media simultaneously celebrated economic chance-taking when it resulted in success, yet bemoaned the unlucky bankrupt, who quickly assumed his position alongside the town drunk and gossipy wife within the pantheon of negative cultural archetypes.

It was not yet evident whether the rapid fluctuation of economic fortunes experienced by American businessmen, farmers and tradesman was attributable to the chance-driven vagaries of the market, or to a deficiency within individuals. Over time, however, chance became reinterpreted as a probabilistic force that could be overcome through astute observation of the market, and through the application of a certain “it factor” possessed by successful businessmen. Even the sometimes critic of capitalist market relations Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed by 1860 that a failure had “himself to thank, if he does not […] improve his position in society.”

As risk-taking became central to antebellum economic life, arbiters of a new capitalistic ethos sought to set parameters around what was, and who could engage in, responsible risk-taking. As Emerson observed, as long as “a man’s independence” remained “a peremptory point of virtue,” one’s economic standing remained a sign of one’s inner moral life.

As such, bourgeois purveyors of capitalist morality at once downplayed the role luck played in the economic lives of workers, while simultaneously identifying chance-taking — in the form of reasoned calculation — as a social service provided by those engaging in commercial pursuits.

In the 1820s and ’30s, lotteries themselves came under fire from middle-class propagandists because they seemed to pervert rational market behavior. One Philadelphia polemist attacked lotteries, claiming that most people were not able to comprehend that the odds were stacked against them. Because of this it was an abominable practice for the state to raise revenue “out of the credulity, the weaknesses, and the vicious propensities of the lower classes.” The author ridiculed the “chimney-sweep, the servant, the apprentice, the clerk” who spent their days off perusing lottery offices in hopes of “becoming suddenly wealthy!”

Even defenders of the working class criticized those willing to purchase lottery tickets. “What man or woman of common sense,” asked a contributor to New York’s Working Man’s Advocate, “would knowingly pay one dollar for an article, which, by accurate calculation, cannot be worth more than 60 cents.”

Although identical critiques cannot be leveled at the current Ohio lottery because it does not involve individuals purchasing tickets, it is clear that a moral residue still clings to the idea of using mere “chance” as a mechanism to promote the public good. Although the scheme in Ohio has clearly been a success, as demonstrated by more people getting vaccinated, this is why critics still view it as a nonrational method of achieving a desired public goal.