The Public Interest and the Lottery


Making decisions and determining fates by the casting of lots has a long record in human history. But launching lotteries in order to win money is far more recent. The first recorded public lottery took place in Rome during the reign of Augustus Caesar, who earmarked funds for repairs in his city. Since then, many states have adopted lotteries. They usually begin by legitimizing a state-run monopoly; choose a public corporation to run the lottery; start with a small number of relatively simple games; and, under pressure for increased revenues, progressively expand their offerings.

Lotteries typically advertise heavily to a variety of specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (whose stores are the main distributors of lottery tickets); suppliers of prizes such as cars and boats; teachers (in states where lottery proceeds are earmarked for education); and, especially, state legislators (who become dependent on lotto revenue). The result is that a lottery operates at cross-purposes with the general public interest.

Because the primary goal of a lottery is to maximize revenues, it must spend a great deal of time and energy persuading people to spend their money on a chance for a big prize. This can have negative effects on the poor, problem gamblers, etc., which are generally ignored by state officials. Moreover, the process of establishing a lottery is often done piecemeal, and with little oversight from either legislators or the general public. Thus, policy decisions that may ultimately have a large impact on the welfare of the state are made without much consideration of the larger implications for society.