The Public Interest and the Lottery

A man in a long black coat stands on the outskirts of a small, quiet village and waits to draw the lottery slip. While he does so, the other men and women around him chatter in a friendly manner, as if they were discussing a football game. One old man, who is something of a town patriarch, quotes a little traditional rhyme: “Lottery in June/Corn be heavy soon.”

While lottery games have their roots in ancient practice (Moses used lotteries to distribute land; the Roman emperor Nero was said to have liked to cast lots for a new name for his slaves), modern state-run lotteries are surprisingly recent. They began to take hold in America in the nineteen-sixties, as states struggled to balance budgets and find ways to provide a social safety net without offending a growing number of anti-tax voters.

The chief argument for introducing lotteries was that they would be a painless source of revenue, with the public voluntarily spending their money rather than being taxed by politicians. And in fact, despite complaints from many people that lottery advertising focuses on appealing to the poor and problem gamblers, state lotteries have generally performed their intended function.

But as the lottery industry grew, critics began to ask whether state governments were doing enough to protect against negative consequences, such as increased drug abuse and social problems. And even if they were, the question remains: Does promoting gambling in this way serve the public interest?