Does the Lottery Serve the Public Interest?

The lottery is a game of chance in which participants pay for a ticket or tickets with numbers that are subsequently drawn by machines and then win prizes if the numbers they have selected match those randomly drawn by the machine. Lottery is a classic example of an activity from which the government at all levels profits, and the resulting revenues often divert resources from other public purposes.

Despite the small probability of winning, many people continue to participate in lottery games, spending billions on tickets that may or may not yield a prize. Some believe that the low-risk investment makes the exercise worthwhile, while others argue that purchasing lottery tickets deprives them of valuable opportunities to save for retirement or college tuition. The truth is that lottery players are a distinct group of people with unique motivations and habits, and a variety of ways to play the lottery.

State lotteries have a long history in the United States. During the 1740s and 1750s, lotteries were used to raise money for the construction of roads, libraries, schools, churches, canals, colleges, and other public ventures. Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to fund cannons for Philadelphia’s defense during the American Revolution, and Thomas Jefferson arranged a private lottery to alleviate crushing debts in his final years. Lotteries have remained popular throughout the United States, and they remain a key source of state revenues. But does running a lottery serve the public interest, or is it at cross-purposes with other state functions?