The Public Interest and the Lottery


The casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long history, dating back at least as far as the Old Testament (Moses was instructed to take a census and divide land by lot) or the Roman emperors, who used it to give away property and slaves. It was also a popular dinner entertainment during the Saturnalia, when hosts distributed pieces of wood with symbols on them and awarded prizes to the guests who had “good luck” and “the right numbers.”

Lotteries became more common in the modern sense of the word when they started to be run by state governments as a way to raise money for public projects. The prevailing argument was that, unlike raising taxes or cutting public services, lottery proceeds benefit the general welfare in some specific way. In a time when voters were especially insensitive to tax increases, this was a powerful argument. It also made sense, since public goods like education were widely viewed as “essential.”

In the early nineteenth century, when lotteries were first introduced in America, they grew quickly, especially in states where public debt was high and state revenues were low. Initially, the profits from these new lotteries were directed toward a wide variety of public works, including schools, parks, and bridges. In addition, a number of private institutions were financed by lottery funds, including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Even Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to raise money for cannons for the defense of Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War.

Cohen argues that this growth was fueled by a combination of exigency and the growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling industry. It was also a time when the affluent class’s preference for risk-taking and the rise of mass advertising both encouraged people to gamble. It was also a time when, as Cohen points out, state budget crises began to recur. With a rising population and the cost of supporting a social safety net, many states could not balance their budgets without either raising taxes or cutting programs that were very unpopular with voters.

The current state of lottery is problematic for several reasons. First, it is a classic case of the creation of public policy that runs at cross-purposes with the larger public interest. In a lottery system, the governing authority is often split between legislative and executive branches with little or no overall control, and decisions are made incrementally with the goal of increasing revenues. The result is that state officials are forced to promote gambling in ways that may have negative consequences for the poor, problem gamblers, and other populations.