The drawing of lots to determine ownership or rights is as old as civilization. It is mentioned in the Bible and was a common practice during the Roman Empire—Nero even held lottery games at his parties—and in colonial America when funds were needed for towns, wars, colleges, and public-works projects. Today state lotteries are popular and play a major role in the economy, raising billions annually to finance everything from public-works projects to high school scholarships.

State lotteries are operated and overseen differently from other types of government spending, but they all operate as businesses aimed at maximizing revenues. Thus, their advertising necessarily aims at persuading the most people possible to spend their money on tickets. It’s no different than the strategies of video-game manufacturers or tobacco companies, but is it appropriate for a government agency to engage in such marketing?

Early proponents of state lotteries argued that they would subsidize a single line item—usually education but sometimes elder care, public parks, or aid to veterans—without adding to a state’s overall tax burden. That argument may have been valid at the time, but it was not a winning strategy as states struggled through a late-twentieth-century tax revolt that resulted in property taxes dropping by sixty percent or more across much of the country. Ultimately, the lottery’s advocates had to find other ways to promote it. And they did.