Public Policy and the Lottery

A lottery is a system for awarding prizes according to the drawing of lots. The word is derived from the Dutch noun lot, which means “fate.” Lotteries were popular in the 17th century as a painless form of taxation, and helped fund a variety of public usages, such as paving streets, building wharves, and even financing churches and universities. In colonial America, lotteries financed the founding of Harvard and Yale, as well as the construction of roads, canals, colleges, and churches. Benjamin Franklin ran a lottery to raise money for cannons for Philadelphia during the American Revolution, and George Washington sponsored a lottery in 1768 to help finance the road across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

State lotteries are run like businesses, and focus on maximizing revenues by advertising to appeal to the largest possible number of people. This inevitably leads to a message that is biased toward encouraging compulsive gamblers and other low-income groups to spend large amounts of their money on tickets.

The problem with this is that government officials at all levels become dependent on lottery revenues and face constant pressure to increase them. As a result, few, if any, states have a coherent policy on gambling, and the aims of public officials often come into conflict with each other. The result is a classic case of policy decisions being made piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no overall oversight. In such a situation, public welfare and social goals are often overlooked as the industry evolves in ways that are outside of the control of politicians.