The Lottery and Politics


The idea of distributing property and other rights by lottery has an ancient record, including a number of instances in the Bible. Its popularity surged in the sixteenth century, when it was widely adopted in European countries. In colonial America, George Washington sponsored a lottery to finance construction of the Mountain Road in Virginia; Benjamin Franklin supported one to raise money for cannons during the American Revolution; and Thomas Jefferson attempted a private lottery to alleviate his crushing debts.

The lottery has been the subject of intense and often bitter debate, but in most states today it enjoys broad public support, with a majority of adults reporting playing at least once. It also has developed broad specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (the lottery’s traditional vendors); ticket suppliers (heavy contributions by these companies to state political campaigns are commonly reported); teachers (in states where a portion of lottery proceeds is earmarked for education); and, of course, state legislators.

A key argument in promoting the lottery is that it provides “painless” revenue: Its proponents argue that instead of taxes, lottery players are voluntarily spending their money for the benefit of the public good, and that this is a better way to raise funds than raising taxes on the working class or cutting back on programs. Politicians find this argument appealing, particularly in times of economic stress, when it is a convenient alternative to cutting back on welfare and other programs that might upset voters.

Lottery revenues increase dramatically initially, but then flatten or even decline over time as players become bored with the games. This has led state officials to introduce new games in an effort to sustain or increase revenues. These innovations are based on the notion that lotteries can be much more like games of chance than traditional raffles, which require people to purchase tickets in advance for a drawing that may take place weeks or months away.

The problem is that while many of the same issues are involved in lotteries as in other forms of gambling, they have additional societal implications. In addition to skewed distribution of prizes, lotteries create a mindset that encourages the idea that gambling is a meritocracy: If you play enough, you’ll eventually get lucky and win. This false belief, in turn, obscures the regressivity of gambling and exacerbates irrational gambling behavior among committed gamblers. It also gives rise to “systems” that are not based on statistical reasoning, such as buying tickets only at certain stores or times of day. Ultimately, these systems can lead to serious financial harm. The only truly successful way to combat this irrationality is to educate people about the odds of winning and how to treat a lottery as a form of entertainment, not a source of wealth.