Lottery As a Public Good

Lottery is a form of gambling in which people pay a small sum of money to have a chance at winning a much larger amount. Whether the odds of winning are very good or very bad, people will play and spend large sums of money to try to win. While the casting of lots for decisions and destinies has a long history in human society, the lottery as a means to distribute material wealth is relatively new.

State lotteries have won broad public approval, largely because the proceeds are seen as supporting a specific “public good,” such as education. This message is particularly effective during times of economic stress, when states may be facing a need for tax increases or cuts in programs. However, it also appears that the objective fiscal circumstances of a state do not affect the extent to which its citizens endorse the use of the lottery.

Once a lottery is established, debate and criticism shift from the general desirability of the initiative to its particular features, such as compulsive gambling and its alleged regressive effect on low-income groups. Despite this, few, if any, lotteries have a coherent “gambling policy.” Instead, the industry has developed extensive and sophisticated specific constituencies: convenience store owners (who buy most of the tickets); lottery suppliers and vendors (whose executives donate heavily to state political campaigns); teachers (in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education); state legislators (who become accustomed to the additional revenue); etc.