Tag Archives: adam smith

Adam Smith on Lotteries

In many places, lotteries are the only legal form of gambling. And even then, only the government is allowed to run them. This may be because lottery profit margins are often 30 percent or more. Casinos average about 5 percent. Lotteries are the worst possible deal for gamblers.

Why do people still play lotteries, then? It’s because humans have an inherent cognitive bias to overestimate the odds of success, and underestimate the odds of failure. This is a useful cognitive defect, because it encourages risk-taking. It was evolutionarily useful back in our hunter-gatherer days. And it remains so today; there would be far less entrepreneurship if people saw odds more clearly. But there are drawbacks. Lotteries are among them.

I didn’t know there were state-run lotteries in 1776, but apparently there were, because Adam Smith explains what a bad deal they are in The Wealth of Nations:

The world neither ever saw, nor ever will see, a perfectly fair lottery; or one in which the whole gain compensated the whole loss; because the undertaker could make nothing by it. In the state lotteries the tickets are not really worth the price…

Many people think that buying more tickets improves one’s odds of winning. But Smith saw that this was not a wise strategy:

There is not, however, a more certain proposition in mathematics, than that the more tickets you adventure upon, the more likely you are to be a loser. Adventure upon all the tickets in the lottery, and you lose for certain; and the greater the number of your tickets the nearer you approach to this certainty.

(Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 124-25.)

Who Says Economists Are Selfish?

And hence it is, that to feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety.

-Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, p. 25.

That sentence is more important to understanding how markets work than most people realize. The ability to feel empathy is part of what makes us human. It is also what makes market economies possible.

Without empathy, killing the customer would be at least as common as serving him. Mutual exchange — trade — is an act of peace. That wouldn’t be possible without the human ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes and feel for them. After all, it’s a lot easier to hit someone and take their stuff. And yet few people do. Empathy is a big reason why.

Adam Smith was one perceptive guy. Others have filled in gaps in his thought, and proven him wrong on some details. That does not take away from the fact that he was as perceptive as any thinker in history.

Marcus Aurelius: Emperor, Philosopher, Economist

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall begins with the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD. It was all downhill from there.

Besides being a well-regarded emperor who was succeeded by an ill-regarded son, Marcus was a philosopher. Reading the works of Epictetus turned him into a devoted stoic as a young man. Marcus’ book Meditations remains the sterling example of the stoic mindset: civility, moderation in all things, and above all, taking triumph and tragedy with the same quiet dignity.

Marcus also had a bit of the economist in him. Despite predating Adam Smith by sixteen centuries, Meditations contains an excellent example of opportunity costs. Only the law of demand is more important in the economist’s toolkit. As a way of saying “mind your own business,” he writes:

Do not waste what remains of your life in speculating about your neighbours, unless with a view to some mutual benefit. To wonder what so-and-so is doing and why… means a loss of opportunity for some other task.*

*Meditations, III.4; trans. Maxwell Staniforth.

Precisely Backwards

People buy less of something when it becomes more expensive. That’s what economists call the law of demand. It is one of the key drivers of every facet of human behavior. And it’s a simple concept. Easy to understand. Easy to apply.

Or maybe it only seems that way. 366 members of Congress just voted to attract tourists to the U.S. by taxing them $10 when they enter the country.

That noise you hear may well be Adam Smith rolling over in his grave.

Few things are more taxing than our elected officials’ economic illiteracy. How sad that visiting a wonderful country like America may soon be one of them.