A lottery is a system by which winning prize money is allocated to participants using a random draw. It is used when there is high demand for a limited resource such as housing units, kindergarten placements or the right to bet on horse races. Whether it’s a lottery to determine the winner of a football match or to award government contracts, most of us have seen this type of competition at work.
The history of lotteries extends back centuries. The Old Testament instructs Moses to take a census of the people of Israel and divide their land by lot; and Roman emperors used lotteries to give away property and slaves during Saturnalian feasts. The American Revolution saw a number of colonial-era lotteries, including Benjamin Franklin’s attempt to raise funds for cannons for Philadelphia’s defense against the British. Lotteries have also financed a variety of other public goods such as paving streets, building wharves and funding the construction of Harvard and Yale.
When a state establishes a lottery, it legislates a monopoly for itself; creates a government agency or public corporation to run the lottery (or licenses a private firm in exchange for a cut of profits); begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, because of continuing pressure for additional revenues, progressively expands the program by adding new games and increasing the size of prize pools. Lotteries are also often promoted as a “good” form of gambling, as proceeds are used for a specific public good such as education or roads. While earmarking lottery funds for a particular purpose may increase public approval, the reality is that any money “saved” through a lottery still leaves the general fund to be spent by the legislature on whatever it pleases.
A key issue that lottery advocates tend to ignore is that the vast majority of people who play the lottery do so because they like to gamble. This desire to win a large sum of money is not unique to lotteries; it is an inextricable feature of human nature. Lotteries exploit this desire by enticing people with promises of instant wealth and presenting them as a harmless form of entertainment.
As a result, lottery advertising necessarily promotes the game’s regressive effects by emphasizing its fun factor and encouraging people to spend a small percentage of their income on tickets. This, in turn, promotes a gambling culture that has a number of negative consequences for poor people and problem gamblers. Moreover, it obscures the fact that the vast majority of lottery players are disproportionately lower-income, less educated and nonwhite. And it is this group that lottery advocates fail to mention when promoting the games and arguing for their legitimacy. This is a serious error.