Is the Lottery an Appropriate Function for a State Government?

A lottery is a gambling game in which numbers are drawn at random for prizes. Some states have state-run lotteries; others allow private corporations to run them for a fee. In either case, state laws set the rules for how the game is played. The lottery has become a popular way to raise money for a wide range of public purposes, and in many cases has replaced traditional taxation as the preferred method of funding state government. However, the growing popularity of the lottery has raised several important questions about whether it is an appropriate function for state governments to undertake.

Although the drawing of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long record in human history (the Old Testament includes instructions on taking censuses by lot, and Roman emperors often gave away land or slaves by lot), a lottery is only relatively recent in its modern form. It was introduced in Europe during the 17th century, and in the United States during the 19th. While the lottery has been criticized by many, it has also proved to be a very popular source of state funds for a variety of public uses.

The basic elements of a lottery are similar in all lotteries: a mechanism for recording the identities and amounts staked by each participant; some means of shuffling and selecting numbers for the drawing; and some method for determining if a ticket is among those to win a prize. The lottery may be a paper-based system in which each bettor writes his name and the numbers or symbols on which he has placed his stake; or it may be an electronic system in which each bettor places a digital number on a machine screen that is then shuffled with those of other participants before being selected in the draw. Most modern lotteries use computer systems that can process thousands of tickets per hour.

Lottery play has grown steadily since the first American state-run lottery was established in New Hampshire in 1964. Most states have now adopted one, and the structure and operation of these lotteries tend to follow remarkably similar patterns. State lawmakers adopt legislation establishing the lottery; create a monopoly for the activity by establishing a state agency or public corporation to run it, as opposed to licensing a private company in return for a percentage of revenues; begin operations with a small number of simple games; and, due to constant pressure for additional revenue, gradually expand their offerings.

In the United States, there are now 37 state-run lotteries. The prevailing arguments for and against the adoption of a lottery generally center on its value as an alternative source of state income. Lottery advocates point out that, unlike taxes, lotteries are a purely voluntary activity, and that, therefore, players voluntarily spend their money for the benefit of the community. They further argue that lotteries provide an opportunity for lower-income residents to participate in a broader range of government activities than would otherwise be possible, such as units in subsidized housing and kindergarten placements.