The Public Interest and the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which people pay to have a chance at winning a prize, such as a large sum of money. It is organized so that a percentage of the profits are donated to charitable causes. While making decisions and determining fates by the casting of lots has a long record in human history (including several instances in the Bible), lotteries, as public events designed to distribute material wealth, have only more recently become popular in the West. While there is no doubt that lotteries are popular with the general population, there is also concern that they promote addiction and encourage poor people to spend their incomes on tickets in the hope of becoming rich.

The evolution of state lotteries is a textbook case of how a governmental body can be at cross-purposes with the wider public interest. Typically, when a lottery is first established, the state legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes an agency or corporation to run it (or licenses a private firm in return for a portion of the profits); begins operations with a small number of relatively simple games; and, under pressure to maintain or increase revenues, progressively expands its offerings by adding new types of games.

Lottery advertising is designed to convince the public that playing the lottery is a fun and safe way to spend money, and that the prizes are large enough to be a reasonable alternative to spending one’s own money on things like groceries or housing. It is not hard to see why so many people fall for this message. However, in the end, most of those who play the lottery will lose. In fact, the odds of winning the lottery are so slim that there is a greater likelihood of being struck by lightning than being the next billionaire.

Aside from the inextricable impulse to gamble, there is another factor that drives people to play the lottery: The promise of instant riches. This is particularly attractive to those living in a society with limited economic mobility. It is not a coincidence that the majority of lottery players and revenues come from middle-income neighborhoods, while those in lower-income neighborhoods are disproportionately less likely to participate.

Even so, it is not clear that lottery revenues are a sound source of revenue for the state. In the long run, they may prove to be less reliable than tax revenues and can even be harmful to the economy. The best alternative is a tax on cigarettes, which would be much more effective in raising the needed funds while reducing the harm to society caused by smoking. However, since state lotteries are popular with voters and politicians, they are unlikely to be abolished any time soon. In the meantime, we must continue to be vigilant to ensure that they do not become a substitute for good government.