The Social Implications of a Lottery

The Social Implications of a Lottery


A lottery is an arrangement of prizes by chance. The prize may be money, goods, services or even real estate. In the case of state lotteries, it usually is money. Lotteries are considered gambling because payment of a consideration (money, work, or property) increases the chances of winning. Several examples of the use of lotteries for material gain can be found in ancient history, such as the Lord giving Moses land by lots, and the Roman emperors distributing property or slaves through a sort of lottery at Saturnalian dinners. Modern state lotteries have a similar history, although they are now primarily a means for states to raise money.

New Hampshire launched the first state lottery in 1964, and since then, 37 states have adopted them. The arguments for and against adoption of a lottery, the structure of the resulting state lottery, and its evolution over time are strikingly similar across states. Lotteries tend to win broad public approval when their proceeds are seen as benefiting a specific public good, such as education. But they can succeed even when the state’s objective fiscal condition is strong, suggesting that the broader social benefits claimed by lotteries are more important to the public than their actual economic impact.

The lottery business is highly profitable for its promoters and a number of other interested parties, including convenience store operators, lottery suppliers, and the many retailers selling tickets; teachers (in those states that earmark lottery revenues); state legislators who quickly become accustomed to the additional income; and the general public (including the people who don’t win). But it is also an example of a government-run enterprise in which policy decisions are made piecemeal and incrementally, and where the overall social welfare implications of the lottery are often overlooked.

Those who play the lottery are aware of the odds against them, but still choose to buy tickets and continue playing because they believe that the benefits of the entertainment value they receive outweigh the disutility of losing money. The lottery industry exploits this belief, and the irrationality of it, to persuade people to continue purchasing tickets.

Lotteries cannot be abolished because they provide a valuable service to the state, but there are steps that can be taken to reduce their harmful effects, such as improving the accuracy of advertising and providing more information about winning combinations. The most critical step, however, is to change the perception of the lottery as a form of entertainment. Until that happens, it will be difficult to eliminate the irrational urge to play.