The Public Interest and the Lottery

A lottery is a game in which people pay to enter and win prizes. Usually, winners receive either a lump sum of money or an annuity payment that is distributed over time. Several states and the District of Columbia have lotteries, which contribute billions to public coffers each year. Many of those who play the lottery believe that it is their answer to a better life, and they are willing to spend a small fraction of their incomes on tickets in the hope of winning.

Throughout history, the lottery has been a popular form of raising funds for a variety of uses. It has also been a painless way for governments to collect tax revenues.

Most state lotteries follow similar models: The state establishes a monopoly for itself; hires a government agency or public corporation to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a share of revenues); begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, under pressure from legislators and voters alike, progressively expands its portfolio of offerings.

In the process, most states rely heavily on advertising to attract players. Because the promotional strategies are oriented around maximizing revenues, they often promote gambling and risk-taking. This puts state lotteries at cross-purposes with the general public interest, and it raises troubling questions about the role of gambling in modern society.