Raising Public Funds Through the Lottery

The lottery has proved a highly effective tool for raising public funds in the United States. It is the classic example of a policy developed piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no general overview; it engenders specialized constituencies, including convenience store operators (who often serve as lottery vendors); suppliers to the industry (whose large contributions to state political campaigns are well documented); teachers (in states that have earmarked lottery revenues for education); and even legislators (who grow accustomed to a steady flow of revenue).

Lotteries were introduced in America by British colonists in 1776, and they became very popular despite strong Protestant proscriptions against gambling. Benjamin Franklin held one in order to raise money for a battery of cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British; and Thomas Jefferson used lotteries to finance his own debts. In private life, lotteries were common in England and America, as a way to sell products or property for more than would be possible through a regular sale, and they were frequently used to raise funds for charitable projects.

In addition to providing public revenue, lotteries are attractive because they can be easily administered and regulated. In most cases, a state simply legislates a monopoly for itself and establishes a public agency or corporation to run the operation (as opposed to licensing a private firm in exchange for a cut of the proceeds). In the beginning, lotteries usually begin with a relatively modest number of games and quickly enlarge their portfolio in response to pressures for more revenue.

People play the lottery because they like to gamble. But there is also an ugly underbelly to lottery operations, and it has to do with the human capacity for violence. Lotteries exploit a primitive, unconscious desire to kill. People who win the lottery are not immune to it, even if they proclaim themselves to be moral and religious people.

A major aspect of the attraction of lotteries is that they dangle the promise of instant wealth. It is an ancient temptation, but a powerful one in this age of inequality and limited social mobility. People want to believe that if they can only get their numbers right, their problems will be solved. They may know better than anyone that winning the lottery is a long shot, but they still have to hope.

In a time when the American economy has suffered from stagnation and unemployment, it is no wonder that state governments have turned to lotteries for help. But as they expand their operations, they are fostering a dangerously toxic relationship between government and gambling. In this dangerous environment, it is crucial to take steps to limit the expansion of state lotteries. Otherwise, the United States could find itself in the midst of a gambling crisis as big as the Great Depression. In this regard, the state of New Hampshire has been a model for the rest of the country. It is time for other states to do the same.