Should Governments Promote the Lottery?


The lottery is an arrangement in which a group of people or individuals are offered a chance to win something of value by a random selection process. The prize may be money, goods, services, or even a chance to participate in an event (such as a game of sports). In some cases the winner or winners are not chosen at all but simply selected from among those who have paid to enter the lottery.

Although making decisions and determining fates by the casting of lots has a long record in human history—including several instances mentioned in the Bible—the lottery is a more recent invention. It has become a common vehicle for raising money to fund public projects and distributing prizes to those who play.

In the modern context, lotteries are games of chance based on numbered tickets. Players purchase the ticket, often marking a box or section on their playslip to indicate that they agree to let a computer randomly select a group of numbers for them. The number of winning numbers determines the size of the prize. The most common lottery prize is a cash sum, but many states offer a variety of other items, including automobiles and other luxury goods. The popularity of the lottery in the United States has generated a lively debate over whether governments should be in the business of promoting such a vice, particularly when the proceeds are earmarked for state budgets.

During the years immediately after World War II, the lottery was viewed as an important tool to help governments balance their budgets without incurring especially onerous taxes on middle-class and working-class voters. But in the nineteen-sixties, as state governments faced rising inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War, this arrangement began to crumble. Balancing the budget became difficult, and it was hard to find ways to increase spending or raise taxes—two options that are extremely unpopular with voters.

Lottery supporters were not prepared to abandon their silver bullet and concede defeat, so they ginned up other strategies. Instead of arguing that a lottery would float most or all of the state’s budget, they started claiming that it would cover a single line item—usually education but sometimes elder care, public parks, or aid to veterans. This strategy was politically viable because it made it easy to campaign on the notion that a vote for the lottery was not a vote for gambling, but for a desirable government service.

In addition, to bolster their argument that the lottery was a legitimate source of revenue and that the benefits outweighed the risks, proponents started offering more detailed and sophisticated statistics about how well the lottery operated. These include a variety of demand information such as the average number of times each application row was awarded the column’s position and a breakdown of winning applications by various criteria. The results of these statistical analyses tend to be quite impressive and support the claim that the lottery operates on a fair and impartial basis.