Should the State Promote the Lottery?


The lottery is a form of gambling in which people pay for tickets in order to win prizes based on the numbers they select. Often, the jackpot is very large and attracts a lot of attention. The lottery has a long history and was once used to fund public projects in colonial America, including paving streets and constructing wharves. George Washington even sponsored a lottery in 1768 to help build roads.

Despite their reliance on chance, state lotteries typically have broad public support. In most states, about 60% of adults report playing a lottery game at least once a year. Lotteries are also a significant source of revenue for many specific groups, such as convenience store operators and their suppliers (heavy contributions to state political campaigns by lottery suppliers are widely reported); teachers (in states in which revenues are earmarked for education) and, especially since 1964, state legislators.

But is there a moral case for the state to promote gambling? Lotteries have a number of problems, such as promoting poor people’s addiction to gambling and providing incentives for the corrupt. But the most serious problem is that they dangle the promise of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility.

Lotteries’ advertising message is that winning a big prize will bring joyous experiences to the winner and his or her family, including luxury cars and vacations. The actual odds of winning, however, are much higher than advertised, and the value of money won is quickly eroded by inflation and taxes.