Lottery – Is it For the Public Good?

Lottery is a popular way for people to try their luck and win big sums of money. The history of making decisions and determining fates through drawing lots is extensive, dating back at least to ancient Rome. However, lottery games with the goal of winning material wealth are fairly recent: the first state-sponsored lotteries were introduced in Europe in the early 15th century. The name is probably derived from the Dutch word for drawing lots, though it may also be a calque on Middle French loterie, printed for the first time in Bruges in 1466 (thus the Oxford English Dictionary’s suggested etymology).

In its initial incarnation, lottery play was seen as a public good and a source of “painless” revenue—the state profits while players voluntarily spend their money. The popularity of the lottery reflects broad economic discontent with inequality, a newfound materialism that asserts anyone can become rich if they have enough money, and popular anti-tax movements.

States continue to promote the lotteries as a way to raise revenue for things like education, senior support, and construction projects. But how meaningful is this revenue, and is it worth the trade-offs of promoting gambling?

Because the lotteries are run as businesses with a focus on revenue, advertising necessarily focuses on persuading consumers to spend their money on the games. But does this run at cross-purposes with the larger public interest? The answers to these questions are complex. But there is one thing everyone should know: it’s not just about the numbers.