The Public Interest and the Lottery


Lotteries have a long history, both as a form of entertainment and of raising money for the public good. The casting of lots for purposes such as deciding fates and allocating property dates back to antiquity (Nero was a fan) and is found throughout the Bible, from choosing the next king to divining who would get to keep Jesus’ garments after his crucifixion. But the lottery’s emergence as a major source of state revenues is more recent.

Cohen explains how the lottery’s popularity grew at a time when governments had to balance budgets while providing generous social safety nets and competing with private businesses for the public’s dollar. Moreover, in an antitax era where states’ budgets were under constant stress and taxpayers were increasingly reluctant to pay higher taxes or cut services, a “painless” revenue source was highly desirable.

To attract customers, the lotteries promoted their products with advertising and promotional campaigns designed to convey a positive image of gambling. In the early seventeenth century, for example, a lottery was used to finance construction projects in England’s new colonies—paving streets, building wharves, and helping poor people. It was also a popular way for colonial-era citizens to buy land and to support institutions such as Harvard, Yale, and King’s College (now Columbia).

A key element of success in public lotteries is how well they are perceived to benefit a specific public interest. This argument has proven particularly effective in times of economic stress. In fact, studies have shown that lotteries are more likely to gain broad public approval when their profits are explicitly designated as supporting education than when they are simply earmarked for “general government purposes.”

Despite the public interest argument, critics of the lottery argue that it is a form of addictive gambling that can lead to addiction and has been linked to a decline in family life and personal financial security. Others point out that the chances of winning are slim—statistically, it’s more probable that you will be struck by lightning than to win a large sum of money in the lottery. Furthermore, those who do win find that it may not be the life-changing experience they had hoped for—indeed, there are cases of winners losing everything they had gained and going bankrupt.