Is a Lottery an Appropriate State Function?

A lottery is a game in which people have a chance to win a prize (often money) by drawing lots. The prize is determined by an agency that manages and regulates the game, and players have the option to participate in it by purchasing a ticket. The idea of making decisions or determining fates by casting lots has a long history in human culture, including multiple examples in the Bible. But the concept of lotteries involving prizes for material gain is relatively recent. The first recorded public lotteries to distribute prizes in the form of cash took place in the Low Countries during the 15th century for a variety of purposes, from town fortifications to assisting the poor.

Lotteries have a powerful allure for many people. They promote the false promise that even the longest shots can turn into short-lived opulence, and play on our inexplicable but deeply felt belief that some lucky person out there has to get rich eventually. The result is that people spend up to $100 billion a year on tickets—and the states that run them reap massive profits.

But a question comes up: Is this an appropriate function for a state? Historically, states have established lotteries in periods of financial stress, when they might need the revenue from it to avoid more onerous taxes on working-class families. But studies have shown that the objective fiscal conditions of a state government do not have much bearing on whether the public approves of a lottery.