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Does the Lottery Serve the Public Good?

In the United States, the lottery raises billions of dollars every year. Some players play for fun, others believe that it will provide them with a better life. Lotteries are run as businesses and therefore must spend a substantial percentage of their revenues on advertising. The advertising must necessarily rely on persuading specific target groups to spend money on the lottery. But does the promotion of gambling serve the general public interest? And does this business model work at cross-purposes with the state’s ostensible function of raising taxes for use in the public good?

While the casting of lots to decide decisions and determine fates has a long record (including several instances in the Bible), lotteries as a means of raising funds and allocating prizes are more recent. The first recorded lotteries to offer tickets for sale and award prizes in the form of cash took place in the Low Countries in the 15th century, with towns holding lotteries to raise money for town fortifications, for repairs, and for helping the poor.

The development of state lotteries has followed a similar pattern: The state legitimises a monopoly; establishes an agency or public corporation to manage the lottery; starts out with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, due to pressure for additional revenue, progressively expands in size and complexity. This has not stopped critics from focusing on particular features of the operation: a growing dependency on gambling revenue; the problem of compulsive gambling; the alleged regressive effect on lower-income groups; and the like.