Lottery As an Instrument of State Policy


Lottery is a popular form of gambling that gives players the chance to win large sums of money for a small investment. Whether or not the winnings will be used for personal gain is an individual decision, and many lottery players dedicate a portion of their winnings to charitable organizations and causes. Playing the lottery is a good way to pass time and can provide a sense of excitement and anticipation. However, it is important to keep in mind that addiction is a possibility. Moreover, it is important to avoid overspending.

Although casting lots to determine fates and fortunes has a long history (including several instances in the Bible), lotteries as an instrument of state policy are much more recent, dating back to the 15th century. The first public lotteries to offer tickets for prizes in the form of money were recorded in the Low Countries, where the towns held lotteries to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor.

State officials generally viewed the establishment of a lottery as a relatively painless alternative to raising taxes. Unlike federal programs, which are funded through general tax revenues, state-run lotteries can be limited to a specific amount of money. This has made them a convenient source of revenue for state governments, especially those with a constitutional requirement to balance their budgets.

But the argument that lotteries are a “painless” source of state revenue is flawed in two major ways. One is that it assumes that gambling is inevitable, and that the state might as well capture this inherent human behavior for its own ends. This view also overlooks the fact that, while lottery proceeds can be used to support certain state programs, they are a volatile revenue source that can fluctuate widely from year to year, and may even put those programs in a financial bind.

Another argument for state lotteries is that they provide a more direct, transparent means of raising revenues than traditional taxation, because lottery dollars are earmarked for particular purposes and can be tracked from one fund to the next. However, this argument is also flawed because state governments are typically bound by much tighter balanced-budget requirements than the federal government, which can simply print money at will.

Aside from attracting a broad segment of the population, lottery games also develop extensive constituencies among specific groups such as convenience store operators, who provide the games and often benefit from the merchandising agreements that feature celebrities, sports teams and cartoon characters; lottery suppliers, who frequently contribute to state political campaigns; teachers, in states where some of the revenue is earmarked for them; and, finally, state legislators, who quickly become accustomed to lottery funds.

In addition, the glitz of the modern lottery, with its massive jackpots, celebrity endorsements and slick promotional materials, can create a distorted image of gambling in society. This is reinforced by the fact that many people feel that playing the lottery is part of their civic duty, because it supposedly helps raise money for education or whatever else.