A lottery is a form of gambling in which the prize is money or goods awarded on the basis of a random selection. Unlike most forms of gambling, however, a lottery is typically run by governments or other organizations, and its proceeds are used for public benefit purposes. Many people are familiar with the popular lottery games such as Powerball, where participants purchase tickets for a chance to win a large jackpot. In the United States, state-sponsored lotteries are a major source of revenue. The word “lottery” comes from the Dutch noun “lot”, meaning fate or fortune, and may have been influenced by Middle French loterie, which itself was probably derived from Old Dutch lotinge, a verb meaning to draw lots.
Whether lottery games are morally acceptable depends on the amount of utility they provide to paying participants. Ideally, the utility of winning the grand prize will outweigh the disutility of losing the game. If so, a lottery might be an appropriate mechanism for allocating items such as units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements.
But the vast majority of lottery participants are seeking not entertainment or utilitarian benefits, but monetary rewards. To generate revenues, lottery prizes must be very large — sometimes in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Such large prizes create a lot of buzz and excitement, but they also tend to make the top prize difficult to win. As a result, lotteries are characterized by a boom-and-bust pattern: initially, revenues expand dramatically, then level off or even decline. To maintain or increase revenues, a lottery promoter must continually introduce new games to keep the public interested.
Before state-sponsored lotteries became common, private lotteries were the primary way that people raised funds for public projects. Benjamin Franklin, for example, sponsored a lottery to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia during the American Revolution. These lotteries were not as widespread as the current state-sponsored variety, but they helped to finance everything from the construction of the British Museum to the repair of bridges.
State-sponsored lotteries are also a significant source of tax revenues. The message that lottery promoters often send is that buying a ticket supports children’s education and other public services. But how meaningful the money generated by these lotteries is to broader state budgets and whether it outweighs the costs of encouraging a large number of people to spend their money foolishly is a subject of considerable debate.
The fact is that most state-sponsored lotteries are a form of gambling, and the promotion of gambling raises ethical concerns. For example, lottery advertising necessarily targets poor communities, and it can also have negative effects on problem gamblers. Moreover, it raises important questions about the proper role of government in promoting commercial gambling. In this essay, I will explore these issues.