Public Policy and the Lottery


A lottery is a game in which people win a prize, generally money, by selecting numbers at random. Some governments outlaw lotteries, while others endorse them and regulate them. Lotteries are popular among those who like to gamble. Buying a ticket is a low-risk investment, and the rewards can be considerable. However, people who spend their hard-earned cash on tickets are giving up the opportunity to save for retirement or college tuition, which is a far better long-term investment. Furthermore, lottery players as a group contribute billions of dollars to government receipts that could have been used for other purposes.

It is easy to see why governments like lotteries: they are a good way to raise money without imposing direct taxes, and they give people the opportunity to win substantial sums of money in a risk-free manner. Purchasing a lottery ticket is not an unusual pastime, and it has been around for a long time: the casting of lots was mentioned in the Bible and was a common practice in Roman times, when it was used for everything from giving away property to divining God’s will.

In the nineteenth century, the first modern lotteries were introduced in the United States. They were not popular with American public opinion, as people saw them as a hidden tax on citizens. By the early twentieth century, though, lotteries became more acceptable as a means to raise funds for public projects. Alexander Hamilton, in fact, praised them, writing that “it is not unreasonable to suppose that the great majority of the community will be willing to hazard a trifling sum for a small chance of a considerable gain.”

By the nineteen-sixties, as inflation and interest rates rose and the cost of running a state increased, many states began to run into serious budgetary problems. It became difficult to balance the books without raising taxes or cutting services, and both options were extremely unpopular with voters. That is when lottery proponents began to refocus their argument. Instead of arguing that a lottery would float all state spending, they argued that it would subsidize a specific line item—invariably, education, but sometimes veterans’ benefits or elder care.

Cohen’s book is about the evolution of this strategy and its effect on public policy. He points out that, as the lottery grew, more and more Americans bought tickets, even those who did not like gambling or believe in luck. Purchasing a ticket is a matter of personal choice, but it should be based on fact and reason, not just gut feeling or a desire to be rich.

Moreover, state lottery commissions are not above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction: they use ad campaigns, the look of the front of the ticket and even math to keep people hooked. This is not a huge surprise; such tactics are employed by tobacco and video-game companies, too. In the end, though, the lottery is no more than a form of gambling and should be regulated as such.