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A national lottery?

WITH the federal deficit untamed, various proposals are circulating to curb it. One is that the government should launch a national lottery. Proponents contend that this could bring the federal government as much as $11 billion in profits. Let's hope most Americans agree that a national lottery is an idea whose time has not come. It should be opposed on both pragmatic and moral grounds.

First, lotteries have not proved to be gigantic money-raisers. For the 27 states that already have them, they have brought in somewhere between 2 and 4 percent of total state-raised revenues. States traditionally devote somewhat more than half of the income from lotteries to the prizes they give winners. Administrative costs eat up another 3 percent. The balance is profit.

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Two Virginia Commonwealth University professors, Marcia Lynn Whicker and Todd W. Areson, calculated in a recent New York Times article that in the three most ``successful'' lottery states - Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania - the average annual bet per adult in the state is around $141. Projected nationally, that would mean gross sales of $24 billion and a profit to the government of $11 billion, after payment of prizes and administrative costs.

That, of course, is on the high side. For a grouping of 17 other states that run lotteries, the professors estimated the average adult bet at around $87. That, projected at the national level, would mean revenue of $15 billion and profits for the government of about $7 billion.

Do we really need a national lottery to raise between $7 billion and $11 billion to cut the deficit? Should we not just fix the problem in a rational way - by cutting costs or raising taxes?

Is there any guarantee that a national lottery would bring in that kind of revenue? Would the federal government run a nationwide lottery as efficiently as do states in smaller geographic areas?

Would a national lottery in fact divert gambling money away from the state lotteries, thus robbing Peter to pay Paul?

Aside from these practical questions, there are moral considerations.

Opponents of lotteries contend that reward-by-chance has a corrosive effect on society. They also say that official sanction of lotteries promotes compulsive gambling.

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Proponents of the lottery system rejoin that our society is permeated by chance already. Casual games of entertainment, they say, are based on chance. Lotteries are used by organized sports to recruit rookies. The government once used a lottery to decide service in the military. The difference, of course, is that these kinds of decisions were not based on the ``get rich quick'' philosophy that underlies the prize lotteries conducted by the states.

Lottery backers also argue that some organized religions have turned to raffles, and bingo, in a big way. That is not necessarily a good trend. And indeed, even in some states that themselves promote lotteries, the advertising of church bingo games is illegal.

Supporters of the lottery system argue there is no evidence of a link between lottery playing and compulsive gambling. The fact is that evidence to prove or disprove such a link is vague and insufficient.

Lottery enthusiasts say that even if a lottery is damaging to a minority of those who gamble, it is unfair to deny freedom of choice to the majority of the populace.

That is a clever legal argument, but it sidesteps a crucial point. The debate should not revolve around government inhibition of gambling and whether that interferes with the rights of the majority. The debate should revolve around whether it is a proper function of the federal government to encourage gambling and profit from it.

Americans should feel decidedly uncomfortable about their government's getting into the gambling business.

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