The lottery is a form of gambling where players pay money to receive prizes that may be a combination of cash and goods. Its history goes back centuries. The Old Testament instructs Moses to take a census of the people of Israel and divide land by lot; Roman emperors used lotteries to give away property and slaves; and American colonists endorsed private lottery games to raise funds for public purposes such as colleges, wars, and other government projects. Today, state governments have embraced the idea of lotteries as a way to generate revenue without taxation and, at the same time, avoid the perception that they are raising taxes.
Once state lotteries are established, their success depends on the ability of political officials to manage an activity that entails both profits for themselves and the public. In a politically sensitive era, the ability of public officials to maintain control over an activity from which they profit has become a matter of great importance. It is an especially complex issue in the case of lotteries, because they are a form of gambling that can produce very large jackpots and often have enormous advertising appeal.
A major reason that states continue to support lotteries is their broad public appeal. Despite their reputation for addictiveness and the prevalence of “losing streaks” that discourage many people from playing, they remain popular with the general public. Lotteries rely on the message that, even if you don’t win, you should feel good about having purchased a ticket because, at least implicitly, your money helped the children or something else in need.
The evolution of state lotteries has shown that it is often difficult to develop a coherent, comprehensive public policy on the subject. Lottery officials tend to make decisions piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no overall overview. Moreover, because of the political and economic pressures on them to increase revenues, they are compelled to react to and accommodate continuing changes in the industry.
As a result, lottery critics often focus on specific features of the operation rather than its general desirability. They are often critical of the way advertisements promote the games (by misrepresenting their odds or inflating the value of the money that can be won), of the way the winnings are paid out (by spreading payments over a period of years, with inflation and taxes dramatically eroding their present value), or of the way in which disproportionately high prize amounts are offered to minorities. In addition, some critics complain about the regressive impact of state lotteries on lower-income citizens. Lotteries also engender strong emotions in a society that has become increasingly polarized. As a result, they may not be the best form of public policy in a modern, pluralistic society. Nonetheless, they are an important source of revenue for governments and will likely continue to be so for some time to come. Lottery critics, therefore, need to take a fresh look at the issues at hand.