The Public Interest and the Lottery


A lottery is a game in which participants pay to purchase a ticket or group of tickets, then win prizes by matching the numbers or symbols selected at random by a drawing. The first lotteries are recorded in the Low Countries during the 15th century. They raised funds for town fortifications and to help the poor. The earliest known winning ticket was inked on 9 May 1445 at L’Ecluse, which was valued at 1737 florins (about US$170,000 today).

The success of lotteries has been driven by the public’s craving for risk-taking and its desire to win money. Unlike taxes, which require a formal procedure for a taxing body to collect and distribute money, lotteries are designed to raise money from private individuals who freely spend it. Consequently, they generate broad popular support. They also develop specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (a traditional source of lottery revenue); suppliers (heavy contributions to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers (in states where lottery proceeds are earmarked for education); and state legislators (who quickly become accustomed to the extra revenues).

Because lotteries are run as businesses with a focus on maximizing revenues, advertising necessarily focuses on persuading people to spend their money. While this strategy is effective in attracting lottery players, it may be at cross-purposes with the larger public interest. Moreover, lottery promotions encourage gambling behavior that is detrimental to the poor and problem gamblers and threatens social mobility. In addition, the irrational desire to buy a winning ticket may be a dangerous distraction from other financial priorities.