The casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long history (see, for example, Numbers 26:55-56) and is common in many religious traditions. Lotteries for material gain are also ancient, with the first recorded use of public lotteries to distribute money or property appearing in 1466 in Bruges, Belgium. Lottery revenues have been used to fund a wide range of projects, including construction of the British Museum and the rebuilding of Faneuil Hall in Boston. State lotteries have been promoted as an alternative to taxes, and their popularity tends to increase in times of economic stress or tax increases.
Despite such claims, however, there is little evidence that lotteries have any measurable impact on public expenditures or the general economy. Moreover, the fact that lotteries are popular with the public has nothing to do with the objective fiscal condition of states. In fact, lotteries have been approved in every state that has required them to be authorized by voters, and they have received broad approval when the state’s fiscal situation is strong as well as when it is weak.
Lotteries are popular with the public because people enjoy the chance to win a prize. But critics charge that lottery advertising is misleading and often presents false or exaggerated probabilities of winning, inflates the value of prizes by presenting them as lump sums when they are usually paid in annual installments over a period of 20 years (with inflation dramatically eroding their current value), and encourages addiction by displaying colorfully attractive images of rich rewards on billboards alongside the highway.
A more profound problem, though, is the corrosive effect of a lottery’s obsession with unimaginable wealth on our national psychology. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, as the income gap between rich and poor widened, health-care costs rose, and job security disappeared, the lottery’s promise of instant riches came to be seen as an outsized and dangerous substitute for a genuine commitment to the values of hard work and perseverance.
There is no doubt that state lottery officials are aware of these dangers. Lottery advertising tries to appeal to the inextricable human urge to gamble for the chance of big wins, and state lottery commissions are not above employing the tactics of tobacco or video-game manufacturers in order to keep players hooked on the games. In addition, the glitz and glamour of the modern jackpots have a potent appeal, even for the most sophisticated citizens. Consequently, a lottery seems like an appropriate way for a government to raise money for public purposes, but it should be carefully monitored and kept under tight control. Ultimately, the exploitation of a public appetite for chance can undermine the democratic system itself. It’s time to put a brake on it.