The Public Debate About the Lottery


Lotteries are games that dish out prizes to paying participants, often money. But they can also be ways to determine things like a winner in a sporting event or kindergarten placements at a public school. They have been around for a long time, in many countries and for all sorts of reasons. In the early American colonies, they were popular for raising funds for public projects. For instance, the Continental Congress voted to hold a lottery to raise money for the Revolution and for the rebuilding of colleges such as Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College, and William and Mary. Privately organized lotteries also arose, as did private companies that ran them.

State governments enact lotteries to raise money for any number of purposes, from road building and bridge repair to providing charity to the poor. The public then buys tickets, which are usually printed on paper with numbers or symbols. Then a drawing takes place and the winner is announced. While lotteries do generate public funds, critics charge that they promote gambling addiction, undermine self-restraint, and can result in a great deal of social harm. They can even be regressive, generating revenues that benefit wealthier people at the expense of lower-income ones.

Despite these risks, state officials have been willing to use the lottery as a revenue source in states with declining tax bases and a growing anti-tax sentiment. As lottery revenues grew, so too did criticism of their operation. Critics have focused on specific features of the lottery, including its potential for compulsive gambling and its alleged regressive impact on lower-income communities.

In order to keep revenue streams high, lottery officials have tinkered with the system, adding new games and expanding prize amounts. But such changes are symptomatic of the fundamental problems with the lottery: It is a government-run business that combines a monopoly structure with an inherently risky business model, leading to a vicious cycle in which revenues rise quickly and then level off or decline over time.

Lottery operators have also attempted to reframe the public discussion about their operations by claiming that they are “good for society.” Such arguments rely on two messages. One is that the lottery is fun and the other is that it is a way to help people in need. But both are misleading, as they obscure how much gamblers play the lottery and how serious they take it.

Moreover, they are an example of the way in which state policy is made piecemeal and incrementally without taking into account general principles or even public welfare. As a result, few states have a coherent “lottery policy.” The lottery has become an important source of revenue for a wide range of state services. But those services are becoming less and less valuable as voters grow increasingly skeptical of the need for a state to raise taxes in order to fund them. The lottery may have a future in the United States, but it is likely to be a more limited role than in the past.