The Public Interest and the Lottery


Lotteries are a strange and fascinating part of human society. They’re an ancient pastime-Nero was a big fan-and they’ve served a variety of purposes, from divining God’s will to funding the building of churches in colonial America. But while lotteries are an integral part of our culture, they’re also a dangerous and addictive form of gambling. This is because, like many other types of gambling, state lotteries are run as a business with a focus on maximizing revenues. As a result, advertising necessarily focuses on persuading target groups to spend their money on the lottery. This, writes Cohen, puts the lottery at cross-purposes with the public interest and leads to problematic outcomes for the poor, problem gamblers, and other vulnerable groups.

The modern-day lotteries began in the late twentieth century, when growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state finances. In a nation that had long embraced its social safety net, it became increasingly difficult for state governments to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. And, as Cohen explains, neither option is popular with voters.

Initially, lottery advocates sold the idea by touting its value as a source of “painless revenue.” They argued that lottery money would cover a single line item in the state’s budget, invariably some kind of popular service that would not anger voters: education, for example, or elder care or park maintenance. This strategy was successful at first. But, in the late eighties and nineties, when statewide lottery revenues began to decline, proponents were no longer able to convince voters that the lottery was a silver bullet.

Instead, they shifted their arguments, emphasizing the lottery’s role in a broader context of government expenditures. They began arguing that the proceeds from the lottery were used to fund a particular line item in the state budget, invariably some kind of popular and nonpartisan service, such as education, parks, or veteran’s aid. This argument was more appealing to voters because it meant that a vote for the lottery wasn’t really a vote in favor of gambling, but in favor of a particular kind of government spending.

Since then, state lotteries have evolved in much the same way as other forms of government gambling. The state legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes a public corporation to run it (as opposed to licensing private firms in exchange for a cut of the profits); begins with a modest number of relatively simple games; and then, faced with constant pressure to increase revenues, progressively expands the operation in size and complexity. The result is that few, if any, states have a coherent gambling policy or even a lottery policy, and the industry is now responsible for billions of dollars in state revenues.