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The Public Good and the Lottery

The casting of lots to decide fates and distribute wealth has a long record in human history, although its use as an instrument for commercial gain is more recent. By the fourteen-hundreds, public lotteries were common in the Low Countries for financing municipal repairs and to aid the poor. During the American Revolution, colonists used them to finance canals, roads, colleges, and other public ventures.

As a business, lottery operations have a duty to maximize revenue, so advertising necessarily focuses on persuading people to spend money on tickets. This may have positive social consequences, but it also risks promoting gambling at cross-purposes to the overall public welfare, especially among the vulnerable – the poor and problem gamblers. Few states have a coherent gambling policy and, as the business of running lotteries evolves over time, officials are left to cope with an evolving industry with which they are unfamiliar.

Despite such concerns, state lotteries are extremely popular. Their appeal, in part, stems from their implicit promise to promote a specific “public good.” This appeal has proven remarkably effective in winning public approval, especially when state governments are under stress. Indeed, Cohen observes that the popularity of lotteries coincided with a national tax revolt in the late nineteen-seventies and early nineteen-eighties, in which voters cut property taxes and slashed other public expenditures.

People often buy tickets for the same numbers over and over again, which can make them less likely to win. Some of these numbers are personal, such as birthdays and home addresses, while others are more statistically significant, such as ages and digits of relatives.