One would think, in these money-obsessed times, that there would be a more consistent attitude to financial greed and its relationship to morality and happiness. Instead, a weird double- standard has taken hold. Bankers, it is agreed, have been foolish and irresponsible. City types who take bonuses while their firms make losses are beyond contempt.
On the other hand, a national institution which symbolises the mindless worship of money, which panders to avarice and encourages gambling, is cheerfully promoted by the government with the help of the BBC. Even in times of recession, the National Lottery is beyond criticism. The perfect icon for a morally confused age, it is even presented as a force for good in the world.
Now the pathetic fantasy of riches, peddled to the nation twice a week, is about to be drastically inflated. Camelot, the firm which has run the UK Lottery since its inception in 1994, is in talks with the American business consortium behind the hugely successful Powerball game.
The millions that have been offered as bait until now are no longer quite enough – as any addict will know, their hit needs to be regularly increased to hit the spot. A new lottery, known as the World Game, will cover 48 countries and offer a prize in excess of £250m.
Press reports of this development have been uncritical and excited. The BBC, no doubt, will see it as part of its public service remit to promote mindless international gambling on prime-time TV as enthusiastically as it has done with the national version.
The gaming industry is recession-proof – indeed every gloomy headline about jobs and salaries is good for trade. In Australia, which is a world leader when it comes to gambling, it has been noted in some parts of the country that money poured into poker machines, or pokies, has drastically increased over the past few months. The biggest leap in gambling on pokies occurred precisely when the world’s markets went into free-fall.
It will be said that the Lottery provides money for all sorts of wonderful causes and capital projects; without it, for example, the Olympics would not be coming to London. That argument is economic and political: the government has discovered a new form of taxation, which is fuelled by greed and desperation but which, with the help of official propaganda, can provide a fraudulent moral pay-off. The punter is encouraged to believe that, when buying his ticket, he is not thinking selfishly at all. In fact, he is actually contributing to the national good.
At a time of unprecedented sanctimoniousness about money, we are ceaselessly reminded by politicians, churchmen and even business people that an obsession with acquiring wealth is not only what caused the present crisis but that, in millions of lives, it can lead to much of the restlessness and dissatisfaction that is part of modern life. Yet in the Lottery, the very opposite message is being promoted. Gamble, it says, however poor you may be. Forget what is in your wallet, and think big. Unearned wealth will bring happiness and the solution to all your problems.
It is a sort of drug, this pornography of money. The fantasy it presents offers an immediate, magical escape from responsibility and work. It is propaganda on behalf of unthinking greed and feckless day-dreaming which, thanks to the government and the BBC, is being pushed to mothers, fathers and children every week, all year round.