Should Government Promote a Lottery?


The practice of distributing property or other goods through the drawing of lots has a long history, including a number of biblical examples. But lotteries, in which people buy tickets for a chance to win a large sum of money, are much more recent. They first became popular in the 15th century, as records from towns in the Low Countries (including Bruges, Ghent, and Utrecht) show, to raise money for town fortifications and help the poor.

Since New Hampshire launched the modern era of state lotteries in 1964, nearly all states have introduced them, and they remain enormously popular. Generally, a state creates a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery; begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, under pressure from state leaders eager for additional revenue, gradually expands the variety of offerings.

As a result, most lotteries now offer dozens of different games and have multibillion-dollar jackpots. But the actual odds of winning are much lower than what’s advertised – and most winners spend their prize money within a few years.

Critics argue that state-sponsored lotteries are at cross-purposes with a government’s true mission. They say that promoting gambling undermines societal values, encourages problem gamblers, and promotes irresponsible spending habits. They also point out that, in an anti-tax era, state governments become dependent on “painless” lottery revenues and face relentless pressures to increase them. In a democracy, should government at any level promote an activity from which it profits?