Running the Numbers

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The other night was a rarity: I actually learned something from TV. The History Channel was recounting a lottery scandal of some years back in Pennsylvania. Not surprisingl~lottery officials had been bribed so that three specific numbers would show up: three numbers that would reward the clairvoyants who chose them. Such are the foundations of the game we call the lottery.

Corruption in such games is an old story. But what was surprising about the History Channel show was the revelation that, alongside the state’s game, the historic Mafia-sponsored numbers racket hummed on as efficiently as ever. It persisted.

But who would play the mob’s game when you could play with the clean-cut minions of the state? Why didn’t the hoods close up shop when betting on those three little numbers became as respectable as laying a tenner on the church collection plate? The answer was staring me in the face: the crooks paid better than the state!

Yes. You got a better deal from the guys with bulging shoulder holsters than from those with bulging briefcases full of your money. Didn’t Bastiat say the state was best at plunder?

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