Do State-Run Lotteries Prevent Crime?

February 25, 2008

Proponents of state-run lotteries frequently argue that if lotteries are to be legal, they must be run by the state to prevent or decrease lottery-related crime. There are several problems with this argument.

First, government involvement in gambling has the potential to increase certain types of crime, notably bribery. In the nineteenth century, members of the Louisiana legislature accepted bribes from a private company in exchange for a 25-year charter naming the company the sole proprietor of the lottery. While modern state lotteries have, in general, been run honestly, there are some notable exceptions, such as the lottery employee in Pennsylvania who injected some of the ping-pong balls used during a drawing with fluid to make them heavier and less likely to be drawn.

Second, when states rely so heavily on lottery revenue to fill coffers, the government has a vested interest in citizens’ gambling, not much different from a private casino’s interest in attracting new players to the blackjack table. In fact, one could argue that the heavy marketing that accompanies many state-run lotteries increases the risk of compulsive gambling.

Third, lotteries—and other types of gambling—will exist regardless of whether they are legal. Illegal lotteries, known in some parts of the country as “numbers” or “policy,” have not disappeared, even with the re-introduction of government-run lotteries in the 20th century. (Since it is difficult to measure the incidence of an illegal activity, it’s hard to say to what extent state-run lotteries have rid states of illegal lotteries.) Whether a potentially dangerous activity occurs illegally and clandestinely or is provided and marketed by the state, either way there will be a certain degree of crime, financial loss, and health hazards.

Let’s take a look at some anecdotal evidence from the pages of Lottery Post. In the past four months alone, the following headlines appeared on the Lottery Post website. Have state-run lotteries abolished lottery-related crime or reduced it to the point where it’s no longer a problem? You be the judge.

When we refute the flimsy crime- and addiction-prevention justifications for state-run lotteries, we’re left with only the claim that lotteries bring revenue into state coffers for worthy causes. For a refutation of this argument, see Gambling with Tax Policy: States’ Growing Reliance on Lottery Tax Revenue and the Lottery and Gambling Taxes section of our website.


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