Is the Lottery a Good Idea?

Lottery is a game where paying participants have a chance to win something. This game is usually used when something limited but high in demand is being distributed: kindergarten placement at a reputable school, units in a subsidized housing block, or a vaccine for a fast-moving virus. There are many types of lottery, but the most popular and common dish out cash prizes to paying participants. A financial lottery also exists, in which players pay a small amount of money to select a group of numbers and then win prizes if enough of their numbers match those randomly drawn by machines.

The earliest recorded instances of a lottery date back thousands of years. They were used by the Romans (Nero was a big fan) and the early Christians. They were deployed either as party games or divining devices—as evidenced by the fact that lotteries are referred to in every book of the Bible, from determining who gets to keep Jesus’ garments after his crucifixion to choosing the next king of Israel.

As time went by, the popularity of lotteries grew, and they became a major source of state revenue in the immediate post-World War II period. These states were expanding their array of social safety nets and needed additional funds to do so. They saw the lottery as a way to fund these safety-net functions without having to increase taxes on the middle class and working classes.

The drawback to this is that the lottery exacerbates inequality. In America, for example, men play lotteries more than women, blacks and Hispanics play more than whites; and the young and old play less than middle age ranges. Further, the tendency to play lotteries decreases with education level.

This has created a tension that is being played out at various levels. One of the issues is the message that states are sending: you should play the lottery because it will make you rich. This message is at odds with the idea that the purpose of state governments is to maximize benefits to society. It also undermines the idea that the lottery is a way to help poor people or problem gamblers. It’s a dangerous message. Moreover, a significant percentage of the proceeds from lottery sales are spent on advertising, which inherently promotes gambling. This raises other questions: Is the promotion of gambling appropriate for state governments? And what are the consequences of such a policy? We’ll take a look at these questions in the next article.