The Public Good and the Lottery


There is, to be sure, a certain inextricable human impulse that leads people to gamble. And there is also, in the case of lottery, this glimmer of hope that maybe it will be their turn to win the jackpot. That is why billboards are so common on the highway with Powerball and Mega Millions jackpot numbers dangling in front of the motorist’s eye. But there’s a lot more that goes on with these games than just the fact that they have these incredibly high jackpots and that people like to wager on them. It’s really about dangling the promise of instant wealth in an age of inequality and limited social mobility.

The word “lottery” probably comes from Old English ltte, meaning “fate determined by drawing lots.” Lottery games have been around since antiquity. The earliest records are keno slips from the Chinese Han dynasty between 205 and 187 BC. The term was also used in the Middle Ages to refer to a game of chance in which wooden sticks were drawn to determine who would receive a piece of land or other valuable property.

In modern times, the lottery has become an increasingly popular form of gambling. Most state governments now operate a lottery, and its popularity is generally independent of the overall financial health of the state government. The argument that proceeds are going to a specific public good, such as education, has proven effective in winning and retaining broad support for the games.

Nevertheless, the popularity of the lottery has not led to state governments abandoning their other revenue sources, such as sales taxes or income taxation. The reality is that these taxes are regressive and the states need to generate new revenue streams in order to provide services to their citizens.

Once a lottery is established, the revenues typically expand quickly and then level off or even decline. To maintain revenues, the lottery must continuously introduce new games to keep the public interested. In addition, the public’s perception of the odds of winning are constantly influenced by the number and size of the jackpots in the various games.

Moreover, the lottery industry has developed extensive specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (whose receipts are usually the most significant portion of the state’s total); ticket suppliers; teachers, in states in which the money is earmarked for education; and state legislators who quickly develop an addiction to the additional revenue. These interests are well served by the lottery’s message that it is a fun and easy way to make money. This is a message that obscures the regressive nature of the games and their profound impact on society. It’s a message that is hard to refute.