The Public Approval of the Lottery


The casting of lots for decisions and determinations of fate has a long record in human history, including numerous instances in the Bible. Using the lottery for material gain is much more recent, however, with its first recorded public lottery in Europe occurring in 1466 in Bruges, Belgium. Its purpose was to raise money for municipal repairs and aid the poor. Since then state lotteries have spread throughout the United States, and they are now a common part of gambling in many places.

The advent of state lotteries is the latest episode in a trend that has seen governments at all levels increasingly adopt forms of gambling to generate revenue. The state lotteries have proven to be extremely popular and lucrative. As a result, they have come to dominate the revenue streams of most state governments. The issue that has arisen is whether this arrangement is appropriate, particularly in an era when anti-tax sentiment is so prevalent.

It is clear that the public approval of lotteries is largely dependent on the degree to which the proceeds are viewed as benefiting a particular public good. This argument has proven effective in obtaining broad support for lotteries, especially during times of economic stress when people fear the prospect of tax increases or cuts in public programs. However, it is also important to note that the popularity of the lottery is independent of the actual fiscal condition of a state; the lottery has consistently won public approval even in states that are in financial soundness.

Moreover, the way state lotteries are established and operated is emblematic of how government policy is made piecemeal with little overall overview. Initially, lotteries were introduced as a way to expand state services without the burden of onerous taxes on the middle class and working class. In this respect they are a classic example of how public policy is made at cross-purposes with the general welfare, an arrangement that has proved to be unsustainable over time.

While the initial reaction to the advent of state lotteries was mainly negative, they eventually won broad public approval and became the dominant source of revenue in most states. As a result, they have shaped the political debate on gambling and, in some cases, are influencing how state governments spend their budgets.

The reversal of this position is evident in the new message of lottery advertising, which is designed to persuade people to spend their hard-earned money on a chance to win. The result is a campaign that promotes gambling as fun and exciting, obscures its regressivity, and encourages the kind of impulsive spending that enables problem gamblers to continue losing. It is not surprising, then, that this glitzy campaign has been effective at generating public opinion in favor of the lottery.