The Problems of the Lottery

The casting of lots to decide destinies has a long history, dating back at least to the Old Testament and including some instances in Roman law. More recently, however, it’s been used for material gain, including the building of the British Museum and a battery of guns to defend Philadelphia in 1776, as well as a number of public projects in the American colonies (including the construction of Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and King’s College) and private lotteries.

When state governments needed money to maintain existing services without enraging their anti-tax electorates, the lottery appeared as “a budgetary miracle.” Cohen writes that legislators promoted it as a way for states to make revenue seem out of thin air. They claimed that once the lottery became so popular it would bring in hundreds of millions of dollars, relieving them of the need to ever again contemplate taxation.

But lotteries generate their own problems. They are run as businesses with a focus on maximizing revenues, and that necessarily means advertising that is deliberately designed to appeal to poor and problem gamblers. It’s also difficult to know whether the profits from lotteries are being spent in ways that serve the public interest.

In addition to the people who buy tickets, lotteries attract many other constituencies, including convenience store operators and their suppliers (whose heavy contributions to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers (in those states where lottery proceeds are earmarked for education); and, of course, lottery officials themselves. The result is a system that has the potential to create enormous wealth for a small minority, while making an overwhelming majority of the population unhappy.