Is It Appropriate for Government to Promote a Gambling Activity?


A lottery is an ancient pastime with a long history, as shown by several instances in the Bible and the many public lotteries held throughout Europe for everything from town fortifications to deciding which family gets Jesus’s garments after his Crucifixion. Yet the modern state-sponsored version of this gambling activity has a more recent history, beginning in the nineteen sixties as America’s tax revolt accelerated and states faced the daunting challenge of balancing their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. In this era, governments became enamored of the “painless” lottery revenues and pushed for their legalization.

A government-run lottery is run like a business, so the advertising for it necessarily focuses on persuading people to spend their money. While this approach may minimize the effects of lottery promotion on poor people and problem gamblers, it does raise questions about whether it is appropriate for a government to promote an addictive activity at cross-purposes with its broader public interest.

One issue is that lottery revenue is highly volatile, with jackpots spiking to apparently newsworthy levels during promotions and then rolling over into future drawings, where they often increase in size. This is in part due to a design feature that increases the odds of winning by making it harder to win the top prize. But it also reflects the psychology of addiction. The jackpots may grow to a staggering sum, but the chances of actually winning are still fairly slim. And for those who do, the prize money will likely be eaten up in taxes and fees.

Despite its flaws, the lottery continues to be popular in the United States. It is sold everywhere from gas stations to convenience stores, and you can even purchase Powerball and Mega Millions tickets alongside Snickers bars at some check-cashing venues. State lottery commissions aren’t above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction, and every element of the game — from its ad campaigns to the look of the tickets to its math — is designed to keep people playing.

The short story The Lottery by Shirley Jackson demonstrates how blind adherence to traditional customs and rituals can lead to terrible consequences. While the villagers in the story seem unaware of the reason behind their lottery, they continue to participate and even endorse violence against others as a result. This reveals the dangerous effect of such oppressive cultures and their reliance on a system of beliefs and practices that can lead to horrific outcomes, including the death of Mrs. Hutchison. Despite this, many of us remain willing to condone such behavior in the name of tradition. What factors influence such attitudes?