The Lottery

The Lottery

The lottery is a system where prizes are allocated by an arrangement which relies entirely on chance. The odds of winning are extremely low, but a large proportion of those who wish to participate in such an arrangement will do so anyway. Government at all levels is unable to prevent people who want to gamble from participating in a lottery, or at least it cannot do so without imposing very high costs. These costs can be substantial and include both taxation and the opportunity cost of spending money on other things.

Lotteries were common in the ancient world—Nero reportedly enjoyed them—and they remain popular today. They are typically organized to raise funds for a variety of purposes, from the purchase of slaves to the construction of public works projects. In the United States, lotteries were first introduced by British colonists. Despite early objections from Thomas Jefferson (who considered them “no much riskier than farming”) and Alexander Hamilton, who grasped what would turn out to be their essence (that most people will prefer a small chance of winning a great deal to a large chance of winning little), they proved enormously popular.

Most state lotteries operate on the same basic model. The state legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes a public agency or corporation to run it; starts operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, under constant pressure for additional revenues, progressively expands the lottery in size and complexity.

A defining feature of modern state lotteries is their broad and growing public support. Many Americans report playing the lottery at least once a year, and 60% of those who play it do so on a regular basis. Lotteries appeal to a wide range of specific constituencies, including convenience-store operators (who typically serve as the primary vendors of tickets); suppliers (heavy contributions from these providers to state political campaigns are frequently reported); teachers (in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education); and state legislators (who quickly become accustomed to a steady flow of painless revenue).

Defenders of lotteries often cast them as “taxes on the stupid,” suggesting that players either don’t understand how unlikely it is to win or just enjoy the experience. More serious critics point out that, just like any other commercial product, lottery sales are responsive to economic fluctuations—they rise as incomes decline, unemployment grows, and poverty rates increase; they fall as household wealth increases. In addition, lottery advertising is heavily concentrated in communities that are disproportionately poor or Black.

Lotteries are also a vehicle for promoting covetousness, a sin condemned by the Bible. People are lured into the lottery with promises that, if they can just hit the jackpot, their problems will disappear. Of course, as Ecclesiastes teaches us, this is empty hope. Money can’t buy happiness, and even the richest among us will find that “all is vanity.” Moreover, when it comes to gambling, people tend to covet other people’s money as well.