Public Policy and the Lottery


A lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn at random for prizes. Some governments outlaw it, while others endorse and organize state or national lotteries. Many people play the lottery, and it is often a major source of revenue for public services. The popularity of the lottery has raised concerns about its social costs. Critics argue that it is a form of “regressive taxation,” in which the poor and working classes are most likely to pay it while reaping few benefits. Others argue that it preys on the illusory hopes of the poor and erodes public morality.

In the early modern era, private lotteries were popular in Europe as means of raising money for various purposes. These included building the British Museum and other public projects, as well as paying for goods and services. Lotteries were widely used in the American colonies during this period, as well. In fact, Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery in order to raise funds to buy cannons to defend Philadelphia during the American Revolution.

Lotteries are a classic example of how public policy is made piecemeal and incrementally, rather than systematically and with a broad overview in mind. Once the lottery is established, it develops its own specific constituency that includes convenience store operators (who are usually the primary vendors); suppliers of tickets and other products and services to the lottery; teachers in states in which lottery revenues are earmarked for education; and state legislators (who quickly become accustomed to the additional revenue).

In addition, the emergence of a lottery system can have long-term effects on a state’s fiscal health. While the lottery is often viewed as a source of “painless” revenue, that revenue comes at a cost to people who spend large amounts of money on tickets.