Odds of Horace Mann Being Right? About 1 in a Million

Last night I was reading AEI president Arthur Brooks’ excellent Wall Street Journal op-ed on the lottery, that seemingly ubiquitous government revenue scheme targeted at the poor, and it brought to mind Horace Mann, the “father of the common schools.” Did Mann pop into my brain because he was also the father of the “Diamond Dollars” scratcher, or “Pick 6 XTRA”? In a way, yes.  

Mann actually hated the unproductive, greed-fueled lottery, which he wrote “cankers the morals of entire classes of the people.” As was the case for seemingly every social ill perceived by Mann, he had a cure for the canker: universal public schooling. Lotteries, he wrote, “await the dawning of that general enlightenment which common schools could so rapidly give, to be banished from the country forever.”

Fast forward to the present day, and what do we have? Roughly 90 percent of school-aged Americans attending public schools—and all children with access to them—while slickly advertised state lotteries pull in $70 billion annually, according to Brooks, with a disproportionate amount coming from low-income Americans who have little chance of breaking even, much less striking it rich.

Contra Mann’s promise, common schooling did not doom the lottery. Far, far from it. Today, perhaps the primary justification for the lottery is that it provides money for the public schools!

Frankly, Mann, who pronounced with assumed authority on everything from proper chewing to the number of “bodies” in the solar system, should have seen this coming. He certainly identified the supposed beneficiaries of lottery proceeds in his day: “the erection of public works,–to build a bridge, a canal, or a church [italics in original].” Mann was especially incensed by the latter, decrying, “When a church is built by a lottery, can there be any doubt which has the best side of the bargain, the Evil Spirit or the Good?”

Today, the “churches” conceived by Mann—the public schools—are themselves enriched by lotteries. Maybe that’s because they could never spread the universal enlightenment that Mann confidently promised. Maybe it is also because, like most of us, those employed by the public schools want as much money as they can reasonably get, and government schemes like the lottery enable them to bring in more.