Public Policy and the Lottery

A lottery is a process of selecting a subset of individuals from a large population by drawing or casting lots. When the subset is arranged in order of likelihood of selection, it is generally balanced so that each individual in the larger population set has the same chance of being selected (although there are exceptions to this rule). In general, the results of a lottery depend on random chance rather than skill.

Lotteries are popular in states because they can win broad public approval by claiming that the proceeds benefit a specific public good, such as education. This argument is most effective during times of economic stress, when state governments are under pressure to raise taxes or cut public services. Even in times of relative fiscal health, however, lottery revenues have often won wide approval, because state officials can argue that they are a relatively painless way to increase government spending.

But, while the public may find lotteries appealing, it is not clear whether they are appropriate public policy. In fact, a number of problems can be identified with the operation of lotteries, from promoting gambling to undermining the legitimacy of other forms of state funding. Moreover, lotteries operate as businesses that seek to maximize revenue. Their advertising strategies therefore place them at cross-purposes with the interests of many different groups, including poor people and problem gamblers. For these reasons, the public should be cautious about the development of new state-run lotteries.