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Public Policy and the Lottery

Whether it’s an instant millionaire game or a chance to win a big-ticket sports ticket, the lottery is everywhere. It’s an enormous industry that brings in lots of revenue, but it also has a lot of critics. Many see it as an evil that draws people into gambling and encourages addictive behavior, while others worry about the impact on public finances.

The drawing of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long history, with references in the Bible (Moses used it to divide the land among Israel) and throughout the Roman Empire (Nero was a big fan). Public lotteries were first introduced during the 1700s, when European states began holding them to raise funds for everything from town repairs to wars.

But it wasn’t until the immediate post-World War II period that state lotteries became a huge success. Politicians saw them as a way to raise money without having to impose onerous taxes on working people. And voters seemed happy to voluntarily contribute to the cause by purchasing a few tickets.

But it was a short-lived triumph. The public’s tolerance for state gambling declined in the decades that followed, and a new set of issues began to emerge. Increasingly, the lottery was being seen not as a “painless tax” but as a source of addiction and a major contributor to social problems. As the industry expanded, it became more difficult to control, and lottery officials often had no sense of overall public policy.