The Problems of the Lottery


Lotteries are an increasingly common source of state revenue, and many governments use them as a way to finance a variety of projects. However, the primary argument used to justify their introduction focuses on their value as a source of “painless” revenues—in other words, a method for raising money without increasing taxes or cutting services, which are generally unpopular with voters. But as Cohen’s book makes clear, this vision of lottery is problematic on both moral and practical grounds.

The casting of lots for a prize has a long history, and it has been employed for purposes as diverse as determining the distribution of land in the Old Testament, giving away slaves to Roman emperors, and funding municipal repairs in modern Belgium. But it was not until the 19th century that states began introducing public lotteries to raise money for general government purposes, and they have become so popular that the practice now covers a surprisingly large slice of America’s economy.

In a small, anonymous village in the heart of rural Iowa, children gather on the town square to watch adults hold their breath for the results of the annual lottery. It is June 27, and the winners will be announced shortly. The community has gathered around a box that contains dozens of slips, one for each member of the village, along with the prize money. Each person’s ticket has been marked with a number, and when the numbers are called, Bill draws his, and Tessie hers.

During this moment of suspense, the crowd is filled with an expectation that someone will walk away with millions of dollars and change their lives forever. But there is also an expectation that someone won’t, and that’s where the tension really begins.

Most of the problems associated with lotteries stem from the fact that they are a form of gambling, and there’s no question that it has a strong appeal to irrational people. But the real problem is that lotteries are being promoted by government agencies that have a mandate to maximize profits and are at cross-purposes with broader societal interests.

Almost every state that has introduced a lottery has done so in a similar way, legislating a monopoly for itself, setting up a public corporation or agency to run it, starting operations with a limited number of fairly simple games, and then expanding rapidly—largely because of pressure from state legislators seeking additional revenues. The resulting lottery has become an enormously profitable business for its parent organizations, but it comes at a cost, both to those who play and to society as a whole. The question now is whether it will be possible to turn it around. The answer appears to be that the only solution is to reduce its size and make it less regressive. This is a difficult thing to do, but it is the only way to ensure that lotteries do no more harm than good. And that is a goal worth striving for.