The Politics of the Lottery


In this age of inequality and limited social mobility, many people feel that the lottery is their last, best or only chance to get a better life. This may be why lotteries generate more than $100 billion in ticket sales every year. They are able to tap into an inextricable human impulse, the desire to gamble.

The first state lotteries were established in the 15th century in the Low Countries to raise funds for town fortifications and charity. Lotteries quickly spread to other European nations, and the Continental Congress voted in 1776 to hold public lotteries to help finance the Revolution.

Lottery supporters cite their value as a painless revenue source and a way to give the general public something for nothing. These arguments appeal to states’ legislators, as well as voters. Once a lottery is adopted, however, it develops extensive specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (lotteries bring in substantial sales); suppliers of equipment and services for the promotion of the lottery (heavy contributions to state political campaigns by these operators are commonly reported); teachers, in states where a significant share of lottery revenues is earmarked for education; and state lawmakers themselves, who become accustomed to the new, reliable income.

This broad base of support for the lottery explains its continued popularity, even in times of financial stress and budget cuts. But it also reflects an inherent tension in the lottery’s proposition: Should government promote vice, or should it provide a mechanism to allow citizens to voluntarily promote their own interests?