Should Governments Promote the Lottery?


The lottery is a popular way for governments to raise revenue. It is widely seen as an alternative to taxes, but critics argue that governments should not be in the business of promoting vices — especially one as harmful as gambling — even though its ill effects are nowhere near as costly on average as those of alcohol or tobacco. But whether or not government should be in the business of promoting lotteries, lottery advertising is often deceptive – it commonly presents misleading information about the odds of winning a jackpot; inflates the value of money won (most lotto jackpots are paid in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation dramatically eroding the current value); and promotes numbers that are too close together, which reduces players’ chances of hitting the prize.

A lottery is a game in which tokens are distributed or sold, and the winners determined by drawing lots: A ticket to the lottery has entertainment value, and if the disutility of the monetary loss is outweighed by the combined utility of the non-monetary gain, a person would rationally purchase it. The game also has a social component, in which people who cannot afford to buy goods and services participate in a group activity with the chance of winning a larger sum.

While making decisions and determining fates by casting lots has a long history in human society, the use of lotteries to win material possessions is more recent: The first recorded public lottery was organized by Augustus Caesar to raise funds for municipal repairs in Rome. But the concept of the modern state-sponsored lottery is much more recent: the first regulated lotteries in America began in the 1790s, and state lotteries now operate in nearly all states.

Besides generating revenue for governments, lotteries can generate profits for private businesses and individuals. They can involve a wide range of products, from scratch-off tickets to the Powerball, a multi-state lottery with huge jackpots. They can also include raffles, sweepstakes, and keno.

The earliest lotteries were simple. The winner got whatever the prize was — often food or drink. Later, prizes became cash or goods. In the 1700s, Benjamin Franklin held a lottery to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British. The Continental Congress voted to establish similar lotteries in each of the 13 colonies. Privately organized lotteries were also common in England and the United States.

Today, state and privately sponsored lotteries are widespread, with broad public support. In states with lotteries, 60% of adults report playing at least once a year. Nevertheless, many states struggle with budget problems, and the pressures to raise lottery revenues are great. While a lottery is a tax, it is considered a “voluntary” tax because participants choose to pay it. Moreover, the proceeds are generally earmarked for specific public purposes: Education, for example. In an era of anti-tax sentiment, it’s no wonder that some legislators feel the pressure to increase lotteries.