Does Promoting Gambling Serve the Public Interest?

Lottery is a form of gambling in which people purchase tickets for a chance to win a prize based on random drawing. It is generally run by states and raises billions of dollars each year. While some people may consider the lottery to be harmless, others believe that it is a dangerous practice that leads to addiction. Regardless of whether you are for or against it, there is no denying that lotteries have a huge impact on society.

In his new book, the historian Steven Cohen explores this complex issue. He writes that the modern lottery arose in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of the money to be made by gambling collided with state budget crises. At that time, many states provided a generous social safety net, and balancing the budget was difficult without raising taxes or cutting services. Rather than raising taxes, legislators looked to the popularly supported but economically unsustainable lottery to fill the gap.

State lotteries are business enterprises, and their purpose is to maximize revenue. To do this, they must attract and maintain a steady stream of customers. To do that, they must advertise. And to do that, they must persuade prospective players that the entertainment value they receive by buying a ticket far outweighs the disutility of monetary loss. But does promoting gambling serve the public interest?

For one thing, it seems to promote inequality. Cohen points out that lottery play skews toward middle-income neighborhoods, with much lower participation in low-income ones. It also skews toward men and the young. And because lotteries are run as businesses, with the goal of maximizing revenues, they tend to market themselves aggressively towards specific groups. This necessarily puts them at cross-purposes with the public interest.

But even if all of that is true, can the state justify a business model that promotes gambling to its citizens? The answer, ultimately, depends on the nature of that gambling. If the non-monetary benefits of lottery play are sufficient to outweigh the cost, then a lottery is a reasonable enterprise for the state to pursue. If, however, it is simply a tool for self-gratification, it may be time to reconsider.