A Love-Hate Between Government and Lottery

Uncategorized Apr 8, 2024

Lottery is one of the oldest forms of gambling known to humankind. It was popular in ancient Rome—Nero was a huge fan—and is attested to throughout the Bible, where it is used to select everything from the next king to who will keep Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion. Today, though, lottery is often seen as something distinctly modern, a form of entertainment that relies on chance to give people a chance at escaping from their mundane lives. Yet Cohen’s story of the lottery shows how state-run games can also be at odds with a government’s basic function: to serve the public interest.

In his book, Cohen argues that America’s current love affair with the lottery began in the nineteen-sixties. At that time, he writes, rising population, inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War threatened state budgets. As a result, it became impossible to balance these budgets without raising taxes or cutting services—both of which were unpopular with voters. Lotteries provided an escape valve for this fiscal crisis. They allowed governments to collect money through a process that did not require the direct involvement of elected officials or voters, and they could be expanded rapidly as demand increased.

For many states, particularly those that have traditionally been very tax-averse, lottery games have proved to be remarkably effective tools for raising revenues without the need to increase taxes or reduce public services. As such, they have become a vital source of funds for local and national projects, including everything from new bridges to urban renewal to high-speed rail lines. But, Cohen notes, these benefits can be accompanied by troubling side effects. As public support for the lottery grows, more and more politicians become reliant on these “painless” revenues—and the pressures to increase them are always mounting.

This increasing dependence on lottery revenue has also created tensions between the public and private interests of the gaming industry. For example, a major goal of lottery promotion is to encourage the buying of tickets, a practice that can have negative consequences for poor people and problem gamblers. In addition, because lottery games are organized as business enterprises with a focus on maximizing profits, they must spend considerable resources on advertising.

This advertising can have a direct effect on the likelihood of winning, since the more tickets are sold, the higher the chances that someone will win. As a result, some groups—such as convenience store owners and lottery suppliers—have developed extensive and influential specific constituencies. These constituencies can help shape the lottery’s policies and influence how much money is allocated to specific projects. This has raised questions about whether it is appropriate for state governments to promote gambling, especially when doing so can have serious social consequences.

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