What is a Lottery?

A lottery is a game of chance in which numbers are drawn to determine a prize, usually cash. Although the casting of lots has a long history in human society—including several instances recorded in the Bible—the modern lottery is a relatively recent development, with its origins in the mid-1700s. State-sponsored lotteries now exist in 44 states, with the exception of Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, and Utah, which forbid gambling altogether. Many people spend billions of dollars each year on tickets, making the lottery the most popular form of gambling in America. Lotteries are promoted by the states as ways to raise money for public purposes, but critics charge that they have many shortcomings: they are often deceptive in their advertising, inflating the odds of winning (which, as anyone who has ever bought a ticket knows, is not very accurate), and promising life-changing amounts of money that will solve all problems (which are never solved, and which, over time, are eroded by taxes and inflation).

A central issue with the lottery is that it exploits people’s propensity to covet money and material things. The Bible warns against this tendency in the Commandments, particularly in the commandment that forbids coveting your neighbor’s house, his wife, or his ox or donkey. But lottery advertising also lures people into playing the lottery with promises that they will improve their lives if only they can win the jackpot. But this promise is empty: Money cannot buy happiness or peace of mind, nor can it take away the pain and suffering caused by disease and death.

Most state lotteries are set up as monopolies, with the state creating its own agency or public corporation to run the operation (as opposed to licensing a private firm for a cut of profits). They start out with a modest number of relatively simple games, then introduce new ones to stimulate growth and sustain revenues. These innovations often include scratch-off tickets that cost less than traditional lottery tickets and offer lower prize amounts, along with higher odds of winning. The revenue-generating potential of these games is limited, but the introduction of new ones allows lottery companies to continue promoting their products in hopes that the public will remain engaged.

Many state lotteries make a point of stressing that the proceeds from their games are dedicated to a specific public good, such as education. The popularity of this argument is boosted in times of economic stress, when it helps to assuage fears of tax increases and cuts in public programs. But studies show that the popularity of state-sponsored lotteries is not correlated to a state’s objective fiscal condition. In fact, a lottery is likely to gain popularity even when the state has more than enough money in its budget to fund its programs and services. This suggests that there are other, more effective ways to promote the state’s financial health—and perhaps a better way to raise money for public purposes.