The Lottery and Politics


The lottery is a system of drawing numbers to determine winners of prizes. The concept is not new and dates back at least to the ancient world, when it was used for land distribution among tribes and Roman emperors gave away slaves by lot. It was also popular during the American Revolution when it provided funds for public buildings and colleges, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), William and Mary, Union, and Brown.

In the modern era, state lotteries have become a staple of American government. Since 1964, they’ve raised more than $660 billion for states. They remain immensely popular, attracting more than 60% of adults in states that have them. Despite these successes, lottery operations are not without their problems, ranging from the harm caused to compulsive gamblers and to lower-income groups, to the overall question of whether promoting gambling is a proper function for the state.

When we talk to people who play the lottery, they tell us about their quote-unquote systems for choosing lucky numbers, about which stores are best for buying tickets, what types of tickets to buy, and what time of day is best for getting the best odds. Ultimately, these people are not idiots. They know the odds and they understand that there is no such thing as a sure bet. They just believe that there is something to be gained from playing the lottery, and they’re willing to spend a significant portion of their incomes to try and win.

Lottery officials rely on two main messages in order to maintain this support. One is the message that even if you lose, it’s worth it because you’re doing your civic duty to help the state. This is meant to obscure the regressivity of the lottery and to make people feel like they’re making a contribution to society.

Another important message that lottery officials rely on is the message that they’re running a fair and impartial game. They are supposed to be free of bias and conflict of interest, but the fact is that there’s a great deal of influence by convenience store owners; lottery suppliers, who contribute heavily to state political campaigns; teachers (in states where lotteries are earmarked for education); and other special interests.

The decision to run a lottery is an example of a policy that’s made in piecemeal fashion with little or no general oversight. Once established, it evolves on its own to satisfy specific revenue goals and to respond to pressure from specific interests. In the process, the overall welfare of the public is lost sight of. This is a classic case of the law of unintended consequences.