The Public Interest and the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling that involves paying a small amount of money in exchange for a chance to win a much larger sum of money. The odds of winning are based on a combination of factors, including the number of tickets purchased and the total value of all prizes awarded. Many states have a state-run lottery, but there are also private lotteries run by independent organizations. Some lotteries offer scratch-off games, while others award cash prizes based on the drawing of numbers. In both types of lotteries, there are rules governing how the prizes must be awarded.

The state lotteries in the United States have a long history. During colonial America, they played an important role in financing public and private ventures. Lotteries were used to finance the creation of early English colonies and the construction of roads, canals, and churches. George Washington even sponsored a lottery in 1768 to raise funds for a road across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

State governments have also promoted the lottery as a source of “painless” revenue—that is, a way to generate significant amounts of money without increasing taxes or cutting other services. This argument is especially effective during times of economic stress, when state government finances are strained and the prospect of tax increases or program cuts is real.

But even in periods of relatively strong financial health, state lotteries are remarkably popular. This broad popularity is partly explained by the fact that the proceeds of most lotteries are earmarked for a specific “public good,” such as education. These earmarked revenues help to overcome the natural reluctance of voters to increase taxes.

In addition, state lotteries have built extensive specific constituencies, ranging from convenience store operators (who are typically the main vendors for the lottery) to ticket suppliers (whose employees often make heavy contributions to state political campaigns). These constituencies benefit greatly from the lottery’s promotion of gambling, and as a result they tend to support it, even when the public is aware that the money it raises comes at a cost to the poor and problem gamblers.

Moreover, since state lotteries are run as businesses that must maximize profits, their advertising necessarily focuses on persuading people to spend money on tickets. This is problematic for two reasons. First, promoting gambling inevitably exposes players to the dangers of addiction, and second, even if these hazards are minimal, is it appropriate for state governments to be in the business of promoting a vice?