Governments are supposed to protect people from scams. But the 20 states and the District of Columbia participating in the Powerball lottery this week are perpetrating as big a fraud as anyone who now sits behind bars in any of the several state penitentiaries.

That's an important point to consider for any Utahn who may be watching this spectacle with envy or who may be considering a lengthy car trip to get in on the action. Donate the money to charity instead. It will do your soul a lot more good.Eighty million one hundred thousand to one. Those are the odds of winning the $250 million prize. By comparison, the odds of freezing to death are only 3 million to one, and you'll notice it isn't too cold outside right now.

If any sweepstakes company, including the often criticized Publishers Clearing House, offered odds of that size, critics would rain down in a monsoon of class-action lawsuits and criminal actions. Yet government officials themselves are saying, with straight faces, that they are helping the public through this gigantic con.

Something is terribly wrong with the premise behind state-sponsored lotteries. Set aside, for the moment, the toll compulsive gambling takes on individuals and families, although this is a hor-ren-dous social ill (researchers estimate up to 13 million Americans have this malady and as many as 25 percent are addicted to government lotteries). Set aside the fact that lotteries tend to attract large numbers of poor and disadvantaged people and are, therefore, more regressive than the most unfair tax imaginable. None of these compares with the damage done by how a lottery skews the relationship between citizens and their government.

Governments are not supposed to be large institutions that benevolently shower riches on lucky winners. In this nation, governments are empowered and limited by the people. They are subservient to the people, who authorize and pay taxes for legitimate government functions - not because they might get rich in return but because of a sense of duty and obligation to the general welfare.

Lotteries take that sense of duty and turn it into pure selfishness. Rather than thinking in terms of making their states and communities better, the folks suckered into buying tickets are instead thinking of how they might benefit personally if their ticket happens to be that one in 80.1 million. The sense of community that rallied this nation for 200 years is being trampled beneath the hordes of people stand-ing in line for $1 tickets.

Forget about getting rich. The 20 states and the District of Columbia are playing Americans for dupes. Powerball, according to the Washington Post, was in danger of collapsing last year because of a lack of sales. That's why the organizers decided to increase the jackpot and make it even harder to win. P.T. Barnum would be proud. The suckers are lining up.

As for Utahns, they should just be proud their state remains honest enough to stay above all this nonsense.