The Public Good and the Lottery

The lottery is a form of gambling whereby people buy tickets for the chance to win prizes that are often large sums of money. It is popular with the public and it has been a major source of state revenue for many states. However, lotteries have been criticized by many people for being addictive forms of gambling that cause people to spend large amounts of money that they can not afford to lose. In addition, the chances of winning are incredibly slim and there have been many cases where winners find themselves worse off than before they won the lottery.

In the past, the principal argument used to promote the lottery has been that it is a “painless” source of revenue because players voluntarily spend their money for the benefit of the public good, and thus the state does not have to raise taxes or cut other programs. This was a particularly attractive argument in the period immediately following World War II, when states were expanding their array of services and yet did not want to raise taxes that would burden the middle class or working class. However, in the era of soaring inflation and high unemployment, this arrangement has begun to unravel.

Lotteries have also been portrayed as a way for the public to participate in government, in the sense that it gives citizens an opportunity to directly influence decisions that affect them. This is a compelling argument in times of economic crisis, when voters may feel pressed by the need to spend less or to cut back on public programs. It is not, however, a persuasive argument in times of prosperity, when voters may well feel that there are other ways to contribute to public programs.

In any case, the reality is that state governments have tended to use the lottery as a source of “painless” revenue for some time now, regardless of their actual fiscal situation. Moreover, studies have shown that the popularity of the lottery is not correlated with the overall health of a state’s finances.

A state’s initial lotteries usually follow remarkably similar patterns. The state legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a share of the profits); begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games, and then, driven by a constant pressure to increase revenues, progressively introduces new games.

This pattern is not unique to the lottery; it has been characteristic of most state governments’ evolution of their gambling industries in general. In the process, public policy is made piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no comprehensive overview, and officials are left to cope with the resulting policies and a dependence on revenues that they can not control. In the end, few, if any, states have a coherent gambling policy. Instead, they have a series of overlapping state lotteries. The result is a system that can be manipulated to promote particular products and interests and to discourage others.