Is Promoting the Lottery an Appropriate Function for the State?


Lottery is a game in which people buy tickets and then win prizes if their numbers are drawn. It is a form of gambling and is legal in most countries. The lottery is a common source of funding for public goods such as roads, libraries, hospitals, and schools. In addition, it is used to allocate resources in situations with high demand but limited supply such as units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements. The idea is to distribute resources as evenly as possible, and lotteries make it difficult for vested interests or elites to monopolize the process.

In modern times, states often organize their own lotteries to generate revenue, and these have become some of the largest businesses in the world. But it’s worth asking whether the promotion of this gambling activity is an appropriate function for the state. The answer is complicated.

The casting of lots for property or other rewards is an ancient practice, with evidence in dozens of biblical passages and in many of the games of chance popular at dinner parties in Roman times (such as the apophoreta, where guests were given tickets and prizes could include fancy dinnerware). But it’s only in the seventeenth century that the first European lotteries were introduced by Francis I to help finance his war efforts; they became very popular throughout Europe and in the American colonies, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling.

Several things are at play in the case of the lottery: It appeals to an inextricable human impulse to gamble. It lures people with promises of instant riches in a time of growing economic inequality. It also encourages bad behavior such as drunk driving and smoking, and it can be a way for the poor to evade taxation.

Most lotteries have a similar structure: the state legislates a monopoly; establishes an agency or public corporation to run it; begins with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, due to pressure for additional revenues, progressively expands the size and complexity of the program. Moreover, the state typically promotes the lottery by offering free advertising and through direct marketing to potential customers.

A person’s decision to purchase a ticket in a lottery is a trade-off between the disutility of a monetary loss and the combined expected utility of entertainment value and other non-monetary gains. If the sum of these benefits is greater than the cost of a ticket, then playing may be a rational decision. If not, then it’s irrational.

While it’s easy to argue that the lottery is an innocuous form of recreational gambling, there are serious problems with the way it is promoted by states and how it’s run as a business. The public should be informed of these issues so that it can decide whether or not to participate. And even if it does, the state should be careful not to misrepresent its chances of winning. This would minimize the potential harms that can result from an unwarranted increase in gambling.