Should Governments Be in Business of Promoting a Vice?


Lottery is a gambling game in which you pay for a chance to win a prize, usually a lump sum of money. It’s a form of taxation, which raises questions about whether governments should be in the business of promoting a vice.

Lotteries aren’t just a source of entertainment; they’re also a way to finance a wide range of government projects, from public schools and libraries to highways and airports. They are especially popular with states that want to expand their social safety nets but don’t have the budget to do it all at once. They’re a relatively painless way to raise the funds needed for these programs.

There are several different ways to run a lottery. Some involve drawing numbers from a bowl or hat, and others use machine-spitted balls or numbers. The prizes can be anything from a car to a vacation. The most common, however, is cash. Many people who play the lottery do so on a regular basis. Some spend tens or even hundreds of dollars per week. In talking to these people, it’s easy to see that they’re not irrational or ignorant; they’re just savvy enough to know the odds are bad and that the chances of winning a huge jackpot are slim to none.

The idea of distributing property or other assets by lot goes back thousands of years, to ancient Israel and the Greeks, who used it as a method of choosing slaves during Saturnalian feasts. Lotteries are also mentioned in the Bible, with Moses instructed to divide up land among the people by lot. The practice became especially popular in the Renaissance, when cities in Europe began requiring that residents purchase tickets for the chance to be awarded city-owned real estate.

Until recently, most state lotteries were not open to the general public, and were instead reserved for those who paid a special fee. But the post-World War II period saw a shift in public opinion. People saw that, with more and more services available to middle and working classes, states needed a new revenue stream. They could no longer rely on regressive taxes, so they created lotteries that gave citizens the opportunity to win subsidized housing units or kindergarten placements.

Federal law prohibits unauthorized promotion of lotteries through the mail or by telephone, but state laws vary. Lotteries must have three elements: consideration, chance and a prize. Consideration is the payment you make to enter, and the prize can be anything from money to jewelry to a new car. More than 90% of lottery winners choose a lump-sum payment, rather than an annuity that provides the winner with a larger amount over several years. The lump-sum option is considered less risky, and therefore a more prudent choice. Nevertheless, despite the risks, there is little doubt that lotteries are a popular form of entertainment and a way for citizens to increase their chances of becoming wealthy. For this reason, they will probably remain a staple of American culture for the foreseeable future.