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The Problems With Lottery Laws

The lottery is a popular game where players buy tickets and have a random (and low) chance of winning. The prize money varies from hundreds of dollars to millions. Some state governments run lotteries. Others permit private companies to run them. In either case, the odds of winning are far lower than other things that can happen to people, such as finding true love or getting hit by lightning.

The idea of allocating property or other assets through a process that depends on chance has a long history. The Old Testament has dozens of references to the division of property by lot; Roman emperors gave away slaves and other valuable items via lottery at Saturnalian feasts. In modern times, governments often adopt lotteries to raise money for public projects. Lotteries are considered a form of “painless revenue” because the public is voluntarily spending money for a state benefit. However, there are several major problems with this approach.

First, a state’s adoption of a lottery sets in motion a cycle of dependence on revenues that officials can do nothing about. It is common for lottery revenue to increase dramatically soon after a new game’s introduction, then level off or even decline. This typically prompts officials to introduce additional games and increase promotion efforts in a desperate attempt to restore growth.

In this dynamic, officials have little incentive to consider the overall impact of lottery policies on society. Lottery laws are typically drafted and enforced piecemeal and incrementally, without broad public input or scrutiny. Legislators, executive branch officials, and lottery managers are often focused on maximizing revenues and on satisfying the interests of the business community. They have little interest in or time to think about how the lottery might affect poor people, problem gamblers, or other sectors of society.

A second issue is that lotteries are often marketed as a way for state governments to avoid raising taxes. This is an argument that stretches credibility, but it reflects a fundamental misconception about what the lottery actually does. Regardless of the source of proceeds, state lotteries are still a form of gambling that raises taxes on some members of society in order to fund projects that benefit other members of society.

Finally, lotteries are a classic example of the failure of public policy to take advantage of the opportunities that the Internet provides for more transparent and decentralized decision-making. As with online banking, many government officials are now learning that the Internet also enables citizens to make their own decisions about which projects should receive funding. This trend, if unchecked, could have a devastating effect on the ability of states to fulfill their constitutional role in promoting and protecting the general welfare. The public has a right to expect that its elected officials will act in the best interests of all citizens, including those who have the least to offer. The Internet should not be allowed to undermine this principle. The Internet can help make government more efficient and effective, but it must be used in a manner that respects the rights of all citizens.