Is the Lottery an Appropriate Function for Governments?


A competition based on chance in which tickets bearing numbers are drawn to determine winners of prizes; especially one held by a government to raise money.

It may seem obvious that there is a big difference between playing lottery games for fun and betting on your life’s future, but the truth is a lot more complicated than that. Lotteries are not just a form of gambling; they’re also an important source of revenue for states, and they tend to promote the idea that anyone can be a winner. This has some unintended consequences for low-income people and problem gamblers, as well as a fundamental tension with the idea that governments should serve the public good rather than make profits.

The financial lottery

It’s not just the odds of winning that are incredibly slim; it’s the inexorable fact that you’re playing for your life. Whether it’s the long shot of getting a new car or a few million dollars, lottery players often feel that the prize is their only hope of lifting themselves out of poverty. This sense of desperation is the ugly underbelly of what we’re doing to ourselves by promoting this form of gambling.

Lottery systems work on a business model that depends on maximizing revenues and that requires significant advertising to attract customers. This advertising necessarily focuses on persuading people to spend their hard-earned cash on lottery tickets. This, combined with the regressivity of the prizes, has led to some very unsavory consequences, and it’s worth asking whether promoting gambling is an appropriate function for state governments in a time when they are facing pressures to increase tax revenues from all sources.