The Lottery and Its Moral Consequences


Lottery is a popular source of public funds for a wide range of projects. It has been used for centuries, and is a familiar sight in Europe and the United States. The first lottery game in the United States was held in 1612, to raise funds for the Virginia Company. Later, the colonies adopted it for a wide variety of purposes, including the paving of streets and construction of wharves. It was even used to fund Harvard and Yale and, in one case, George Washington’s expedition against the French.

State lotteries typically establish a monopoly; designate a state agency or public corporation to run the games (as opposed to licensing a private firm for a fee); start with modest numbers of relatively simple games; and then, driven by a constant pressure for increased revenues, progressively expand their operations in size and complexity, adding new games and increasing the prize pools for the existing ones. Most lotteries feature a single large jackpot, with many other smaller prizes.

While most people playing the lottery have a strong desire to win, many of them are also well aware of the odds. They know that they can lose more than they win, and are often conscious of the fact that they are spending money on tickets that would have otherwise gone toward food, clothing or shelter.

They also understand that they are engaging in a form of self-destructive behavior, and many are committed to quitting. They also realize that the money they spend on tickets could be better spent on things like college tuition or retirement savings. Nonetheless, they continue to play the lottery in search of that elusive dream.

As a result, state lotteries have become the target of a variety of moral arguments. They are seen as a form of “voluntary” taxation, which has the effect of hurting those who can least afford it. They are also accused of fostering compulsive gambling and regressively transferring wealth from lower-income to richer families.

Lottery supporters counter these arguments with several points. They argue that the high jackpots and low prize-to-ticket cost make the lottery attractive to millions of people, and that the regressive effects are offset by the fact that most of the proceeds are awarded in the form of cash prizes, rather than consumption goods. They also point to the success of private lotteries, which have been successful in raising money for a number of charitable, educational and other causes.

The evolution of state lotteries is a classic example of how political decisions are made piecemeal and incrementally, with the general welfare taken into consideration only intermittently, if at all. Once a lottery is established, the focus of debate and criticism shifts from the general desirability of the enterprise to specific features of its operation, such as the problem of compulsive gamblers and the regressive nature of its revenue streams. Consequently, it is difficult to develop a coherent “gambling policy” for the industry as a whole.