The lottery is big business. Americans spent more than $100 billion on tickets in 2021, making it by far the most popular form of gambling in the country. States promote lotteries as ways to raise revenue. And they do—the money from ticket sales helps pay for things such as schools, roads, and medical care. But the question is whether that extra money is worth the costs of promoting a gambling addiction and encouraging people to gamble with money they can’t afford to lose.
Lotteries have a long history. They have been used in the past to provide funds for everything from building the British Museum and repairing bridges to supporting war efforts and supplying cannons during the American Revolution and rebuilding Faneuil Hall in Boston. The first European lotteries in modern senses of the word appeared in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders as towns tried to raise funds to fortify their defenses or aid the poor. Francis I of France permitted the establishment of private and public lotteries in several cities, and lottery-type games became widespread in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries.
In the United States, New Hampshire initiated the modern era of state lotteries in 1964. Inspired by its success, other states soon followed. Throughout the decades that have followed, the development of state lotteries has had a remarkably consistent pattern: The public overwhelmingly supports the introduction of a lottery; the state legislates a monopoly for itself, or licenses a private firm in return for a share of the profits; it starts with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, as the demand for additional revenues rises, the lottery progressively expands its offerings, especially by adding new games.
The lottery draws its inspiration from an ancient human impulse. There is a universal desire to gamble, a need for risk, and an inherent pleasure in observing the outcomes of chance events. This is why people love watching sports and movies, and it’s also why they are drawn to television commercials for the Powerball and Mega Millions. Lottery advertisements evoke these feelings by teasing viewers with the potential for instant riches.
Yet there is more to the lottery than this inextricable human impulse. It is a government-regulated enterprise that depends on the goodwill of convenience store operators and other vendors (the suppliers to state lotteries are known to make large contributions to political campaigns); teachers and school districts, which quickly become accustomed to lottery revenues; and state legislators, who become accustomed to having an additional revenue stream. These interests often conflict with the public interest, resulting in a system that focuses on maximizing revenues rather than the overall social welfare of its customers. This skewed focus on profits creates numerous problems, including the proliferation of problem gambling and its regressive impact on lower-income groups. But the most troubling aspect of the lottery is its promotion of gambling addiction. While there is something almost admirable about people trying to improve their lives by relying on luck, it is not an appropriate function for the state.