Public Policy and the Lottery


The lottery is a scheme for the distribution of prizes, especially money, by chance. It may also refer to the distribution of property or slaves. Modern lottery operations generally require that participants pay for a ticket and then be selected for a prize, which is often based on a combination of factors, such as the order in which tickets are purchased, the number of times a participant’s chosen numbers are drawn, or the percentage of the overall pool won by each selection. The cost of organizing and promoting the lottery, as well as the profits and taxes paid by state governments or sponsors, must be deducted from the pool, leaving a prize amount for the winners. In general, people seem to be most attracted to large prizes and tend to purchase multiple tickets when the chance of winning is high.

Lotteries are one of the most widely used sources of alternative revenue for state governments, and they have a long history. Governments have used them to raise funds for everything from paving streets and building wharves to buying a battery of guns for defense of the British Museum to rebuilding Faneuil Hall in Boston. They have also been used to pay for military conscription and commercial promotions in which property is given away. Even George Washington sponsored a lottery in 1768 to fund a road across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

States promote their lotteries mainly by emphasizing that the proceeds benefit a particular public good, such as education. This argument is particularly persuasive in periods of economic stress, when voters fear tax increases or cuts in state spending. However, studies have shown that the popularity of the lottery is independent of the objective fiscal health of a state government.

Critics argue that the earmarking of lottery proceeds to particular purposes is misleading and does not increase overall funding for those programs. In many cases, the earmarked lottery revenues simply allow the legislature to reduce appropriations from other state sources that would have been needed for the program. In other words, the earmarked lottery funds serve primarily as a source of “taxes without taxing.”

A major problem with lotteries is that they are a classic case of public policy made piecemeal and incrementally rather than in the context of an overall state agenda. Once established, a state’s lottery is likely to evolve in ways that the initial design and structure never contemplated. This is due largely to the fact that authority for operating the lottery is typically split between the legislative and executive branches of a state government and further divided between different public companies or agencies. In addition, the industry is heavily influenced by lobbying and political pressures.

Moreover, the nature of the lottery as a gambling activity makes it difficult to control its effects on society. This is a problem that is also common with other vices, such as alcohol and tobacco. Nevertheless, it is essential that governments have strong regulatory controls over gambling and other forms of alternative revenue in order to limit the negative impact of these activities on their populations.