Should Government Promote the Lottery?


The lottery is a form of gambling in which participants purchase tickets for a chance to win a prize, often cash. A percentage of proceeds is usually donated to charity. Many states offer multiple lotteries and a variety of games, including scratch-off tickets, Powerball, and Mega Millions. While the game may be a source of great wealth for some people, it has also been linked to compulsive gambling and other problems. The question is whether it is appropriate for government to promote the lottery and, if so, what should be its purpose?

The first lotteries with a promise of prize money were probably held in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, where they raised funds for town fortifications and charity. They then spread to England and, in the early colonial era, the American colonies. Benjamin Franklin held one to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia; Thomas Jefferson sought a private lottery to alleviate his crushing debts.

In the twentieth century, state-run lotteries grew in popularity, in large part because of their ability to capture public imagination with the idea of unimaginable wealth. These developments occurred at a time when, as Cohen points out, the national dream of self-sufficiency and prosperity seemed increasingly out of reach for most Americans, as the gap between rich and poor widened, job security and retirement plans eroded, health-care costs rose, and America’s long-standing belief that hard work would allow children to live better than their parents grew shakier and shakier.

Lotteries have proven to be a powerful public-policy tool in this context, in part because they allow state governments to sell the proposition that they will float a particular line item—invariably education, but sometimes veterans’ benefits or public parks or elder care—and thus avoid the politically risky prospect of a tax increase or budget cut. Moreover, the popularity of lotteries does not seem to be dependent on a state’s actual fiscal circumstances, as studies have shown that lottery revenues do not correlate with a state’s fiscal health.

Advocates of legalizing lotteries began to gin up other strategies. Instead of arguing that the profits of a new lottery would float most of a state’s budget, they started to argue that it would pay for just a single, popular and nonpartisan service—usually education, but sometimes even elder care or public parks or veteran’s benefits. This more limited argument proved more effective, because it made it easier to make the case that a vote for a lottery was not a vote for gambling, but for a worthwhile government service.