The Public Good and the Lottery


Lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn at random for a prize. Some governments outlaw it, while others endorse it and organize a state or national lottery. But the big thing that lottery is doing—what’s really driving those billboards on the highway with the Mega Millions and the Powerball jackpots—is dangling the promise of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. People simply like to gamble, and the lottery is one way to do that.

But there’s more going on here than just that simple human impulse. The real reason states have lotteries is that they’re a source of revenue to cover a line item in the state budget, typically education. Lottery proponents argue that lottery proceeds can be used for a specific public good without raising taxes or cutting services, which is an appealing argument to voters concerned about government debt and spending.

In fact, as the book shows, state lotteries have been popular throughout history, including in times of economic stress. The lottery won broad approval in the nineteen-sixties, when the rising cost of inflation and a growing population made it hard for many states to balance their budgets without increasing taxes or cutting services.

Interestingly, the rich are more likely to play the lottery than the poor (though they don’t necessarily buy fewer tickets); on average, those making over fifty thousand dollars spend a quarter of their income on them; while those who make less than thirty thousand spend thirteen per cent. Moreover, most lottery revenue is spent on administration and vendor costs and to fund projects that each state designates.