The Lottery and Its Critics


A lottery is a state-sponsored contest in which players buy tickets and have a random chance of winning. The odds of doing so are presumably low (as, for instance, are the chances of finding true love or getting hit by lightning). In its most traditional form, the lottery dispenses prizes of material value: cash or goods. In a more modern form, it involves the drawing of numbers to determine a winner. The latter can then choose to invest the prize money in a variety of ways, including using it to purchase annuities, which are a kind of insurance against the possibility of dying early.

Lotteries are in fact not a recent invention, having their roots in ancient times. In the earliest recorded lottery, for example, Augustus Caesar organized one to raise funds for city repairs in Rome. And the casting of lots to determine fates has a long record in human history (including several instances in the Bible).

But a lottery is a different animal from other forms of gambling, in which the odds are based on how many tickets are purchased and sold, or on what percentage of total sales are made. The odds of winning the Powerball jackpot, for example, are only about a quarter of a billion dollars—still much less than the median income of American households. Yet, as the nation grew richer during the twentieth century, the number of people who play the lottery has mushroomed, as has the amount of prize money that is awarded.

Politicians have been eager to promote the lottery as a way of bringing in revenue without raising taxes. This appeal was bolstered by the fact that, as Cohen points out, voters have consistently endorsed the idea of state-sponsored lotteries.

But as the industry grew, critics began to point out that the lottery’s main function is to promote gambling. To that end, it is a business that is constantly promoting itself in various ways: by highlighting the size of the prize money; by stressing its low operating costs (which, when combined with the state’s monopoly power, are virtually zero); by focusing on the fact that it does not tax players; and by presenting an image of the rich as avid lottery patrons.

In the face of this evidence, critics have shifted their focus from the general desirability of the lottery to more specific aspects of its operations. They have argued that the lottery does not do enough to curb compulsive gambling; that it promotes unrealistic fantasies about wealth; and that, by focusing on the needs of high-income groups, it is regressive in its effect on those with less money. They also have pointed out that, because lottery advertising is so focused on maximizing revenues, it tends to be misleading, frequently misrepresenting the odds of winning and inflating the value of prizes (which are paid out in installments over twenty years, with inflation dramatically eroding their current values). In short, they have charged that the lottery runs at cross-purposes with the public interest.