Categories: Gambling

The Lottery As a Public Good

The lottery has been around since ancient times, in the form of the casting of lots to distribute property or slaves. But it has not been widely used as a means of raising money until the late nineteen-twenties, when states began searching for solutions to their budgetary crises that did not enrage an increasingly tax-averse public.

In 1964, New Hampshire inaugurated the modern era of state lotteries, and other states soon followed suit, mostly in the Northeast and the Rust Belt. By the early nineteen-eighties, most Americans lived in a state with a lottery and more than half of them reported playing it at least once a year.

Until recently, most state lotteries were essentially traditional raffles, with the public buying tickets for a drawing that would occur at some time in the future, often weeks or months away. But innovation in the 1970s introduced a variety of instant games, such as scratch-off tickets, that offered lower prize amounts—but much higher odds of winning. These games proved to be a hit, and the industry’s revenues grew rapidly.

But as revenues grew, critics started to focus less on the desirability of the lottery and more on its operation. They complained of the problems of compulsive gamblers and its regressive impact on lower-income families, and called for tighter regulation and greater transparency.

To a certain extent, these concerns are valid. Lotteries can make it too easy for people to spend money they don’t have, and they are vulnerable to fraud. But a better strategy might be to use lotteries to fund government services that people want, and that voters can identify with: education, elder care, public parks, aid for veterans. This would require a change in the way we talk about the lottery, which tends to emphasize its benefits while downplaying the risks.

Rather than touting the lottery as a silver bullet that will float a state’s entire budget, advocates now focus on one line item—often education but sometimes veterans’ assistance or elder care—and argue that it can be a cost-effective way to pay for them. The narrower strategy also makes campaigning for legalization easier.

The story of the villagers is a powerful and disturbing cautionary tale about human greed and evilness. The events depicted in the story underscore that we must never forget our own capacity for evil, and that even the most well-intentioned among us are capable of doing terrible things.

In the final analysis, however, the villagers’ behavior ultimately is not so very different from our own. The fact that we can be compelled to purchase a ticket for a chance to win a small amount of money demonstrates that the ability to be deceived and to succumb to temptation is built into our very nature. It is a lesson that we must always remember, no matter how many lottery prizes we may win.

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