The Public Welfare Role of the Lottery


The casting of lots for material benefits has a long history in human society, but the modern state lottery is only about a century old. As with many government institutions, it evolves piecemeal, with no general policy overseeing its development and a fragmented structure of power that makes it difficult to keep the lottery’s public welfare role in mind.

Lottery advertising focuses on super-sized jackpots and boasts of the game’s amazing odds, but it also misrepresents the prize amounts by inflating them to apparently newsworthy levels; and it presents winners with an unsustainable financial deal (the big prizes are typically paid out in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation rapidly eating away the current value). In addition, lotteries exploit demographics to maximize revenues, including by encouraging people in lower income brackets to play.

All these issues are important because the primary function of a lottery is to raise money for a specific purpose, such as education or infrastructure. But, if the money is raised by a process that relies wholly on chance, it cannot be expected to be used wisely, and, in fact, it’s likely that the lottery will end up spending more money than it raises. This makes the lottery a classic case of government running at cross-purposes with its own interests. A government that promotes gambling is putting its citizens at risk of negative consequences, whether it’s poor people losing their money or problems like addiction.

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