The New Lottery Pitching Argument
A lottery is a game in which a small number of people can win a large sum by picking numbers. The practice dates back to ancient times. The Old Testament instructed Moses to take a census of Israel and divide the land by lot, while Roman emperors used lotteries for property and slaves. In colonial America, lotteries helped finance roads, canals, churches, colleges, and schools.
But it wasn’t until the nineteen-sixties that growing awareness of all the money to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. Amid soaring inflation, the cost of the Vietnam War, and a booming population, many states found it impossible to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services—both options extremely unpopular with voters. As a result, proponents of legalization began to change the way they pitched their argument. No longer claiming that a state lottery would float the entire budget, they shifted focus to single line items—invariably education, but occasionally elder care or public parks—that could be guaranteed to get a good percentage of votes.
This new pitch allowed advocates to dismiss long-standing ethical objections to gambling. After all, they argued, most people would gamble anyway—and a lottery is just an efficient way to raise funds for government projects. This reasoning also enabled them to dismiss longstanding ethical objections to state taxes, arguing that because winning a lottery was just like paying a tax, the states should be free to pocket the profits from their state-run lotteries.