The Dangers of Lottery Systems


The casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long record in human history, but lotteries that distribute prizes in money or goods are more recent. The first such lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century to raise funds for town fortifications and for the poor.

A lottery involves buying a ticket and selecting or letting machines select a group of numbers that correspond to prize-winning numbers. Each player receives a portion of the prize pool based on the number of tickets purchased, and the higher the ticket sales, the larger the pool. The prize money is used to pay for a variety of different things, including sports team drafts, public works projects, and state budgets.

State governments enact lotteries in order to raise revenue without having to increase taxes or cut public programs. This arrangement grew particularly popular in the immediate post-World War II period, when states were expanding their social safety nets and needed new revenues to do so without burdening middle-class and working-class taxpayers.

But it’s a dangerous arrangement: once established, lottery systems tend to develop broad and intensely specific constituencies that can be difficult to dismantle. This includes convenience stores (the major sellers of tickets); lottery suppliers (who often donate heavily to state political campaigns); teachers (in states that earmark lottery revenues for education); and state legislators, who quickly become accustomed to the steady stream of lottery revenue.