The Politics of the Lottery


In the United States, lottery players spend billions of dollars every week, buying tickets for a chance to win big. Many people who play the lottery believe that they are doing so for good, and that the ticket represents a chance to improve their life. However, the odds of winning the lottery are very low, and this makes playing it a poor choice for anyone with a reasonable understanding of probability.

Although making decisions and determining fates through the casting of lots has an ancient history, the first recorded lotteries to offer tickets for prize money appear in the Low Countries around 1466, in towns that raised funds for town fortifications and to help the poor. Earlier, the practice had been common in the Roman Empire-Nero liked to hold a lottery at his parties-and in the Bible, where lotteries were used for everything from distributing garments during the Saturnalia and divining the fate of Jesus after his Crucifixion.

Throughout the centuries, lotteries have been used to fund municipal projects, religious and charitable endeavors, and wars. They were widely popular in colonial America, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling, and helped finance the settlement of the New World. In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to raise money for cannons for Philadelphia and Thomas Jefferson held a private lottery to alleviate his crushing debts. Eventually, however, mismanagement and corruption led to their decline, and they were banned in most states by the end of the 19th century.

Since 1964, when New Hampshire launched the modern era of state lotteries, lotteries have been introduced in 37 states and the District of Columbia, and are generally a point of broad public consensus. Lottery revenues have supported everything from education to elder care to aid for veterans, and in most states, the vast majority of adults report that they play the lottery at least occasionally.

While lotteries may have broad support, they are not immune from the same political forces that affect other government-funded activities. They tend to develop specific constituencies, including convenience-store operators (the most reliable vendors for lottery tickets); the suppliers of instant games (heavy contributions by them to state political campaigns are often reported); teachers (in those states in which a portion of the proceeds is earmarked for education); and state legislators who become accustomed to the easy flow of revenue.

As a result, they are susceptible to corruption and cronyism. This is illustrated by the case of the Louisiana State Lottery Company, which operated in the early days of American lotteries until it was brought to a screeching halt in the wake of widespread complaints about its graft and mismanagement. In addition to its political problems, the lottery is an addiction. People buy it, even though the odds of winning are extremely low, because they are tempted by its appeal to their desire for immediate gratification and their belief that it will bring them wealth and success. Moreover, they may be convinced by clever advertising and all sorts of quote-unquote “systems” that are not based on statistical reasoning that the lottery is their last, best, or only hope of a better life.