Public Policy and the Lottery

The lottery is one of the most popular forms of gambling in the United States, generating billions of dollars annually. Although most players do not win the big jackpot, many are able to make enough money playing the lottery to sustain themselves and even have some left over to spend on goods and services. Consequently, the popularity of the lottery has generated a number of important public policy questions.

In the early years of American history, public lotteries were widely used to raise funds for such projects as building American colleges (Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College, William and Mary, Union, and Brown) and supplying weapons to the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War. Privately organized lotteries were also common in England and the American colonies.

Lotteries are based on the principle that any particular item of value can be awarded to a random individual or group. Whether that value is a prize for winning a game of chance, an entry in a school or university program, or a place in a city’s housing authority lottery, the winner will be selected by drawing lots. This method is often employed by schools, universities, cities and other organizations to fill vacancies that cannot be filled through conventional means such as hiring or firing, or when the choice involves choosing among equally qualified applicants.

It is not surprising that state governments have found the concept of a random selection process appealing as a way to raise funds for government purposes without raising taxes. The state legislatures have a vested interest in the success of the lottery because they must approve its establishment and oversee its operation. Once a lottery is established, however, public policy debates and criticism often shift to specific features of the lottery’s operations, such as the problem of compulsive gambling or its alleged regressive impact on lower-income groups.

As a result, state lottery commissioners are constantly facing pressure to expand and introduce new games in order to attract more participants. This inevitably pushes the odds of winning down, which in turn drives up demand for tickets. Lottery profits have become the lifeblood of a state’s budget, and politicians are reluctant to raise taxes or cut programs.

The result of this symbiotic relationship between the lottery and the state legislature is that public officials often have limited control over how a lottery operates. The lottery is a classic case of public policy being made piecemeal and incrementally, with little overall oversight. Most states do not have a coherent “gambling policy” or even a lottery policy, and officials must compete for the lottery’s revenues, which are often allocated to various state departments and agencies. The end result is that the lottery becomes a self-perpetuating system that is difficult to dismantle. The lottery is a perfect example of the “law of unintended consequences,” whereby a well-intentioned initiative can produce unintended and undesirable outcomes. This is particularly true when it comes to government-sponsored activities such as the lottery.