The Political and Social Implications of the Lottery

A lottery is a system of distributing something, often money or prizes, among a group by lot (or chance). The term also refers to the process of selecting winners in such an arrangement. In modern times, state-run lotteries raise billions of dollars annually and have become a major form of gambling. The growth of lotteries has generated a variety of political and social issues, including the problems of compulsive gamblers and their regressive impact on low-income groups.

In the United States, many lotteries have been used to finance a wide range of public works projects, including bridges, the building of the British Museum, and, during the American Revolution, purchasing a battery of guns for the defense of Philadelphia and rebuilding Faneuil Hall in Boston. Early American lotteries were also sponsored by George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and John Hancock.

During the earliest years of the lottery’s evolution, supporters argued that it would enable governments to finance public projects without increasing taxes or cutting other programs. But, as Clotfelter and Cook explain, this argument has little bearing on a state government’s actual fiscal health.

The fact that lotteries tend to win broad public approval is primarily because of their perceived association with the promotion of a specific public good, such as education. But, because lotteries are a form of gambling, they also appeal to specific interest groups. For example, convenience store operators are the primary suppliers of lottery tickets and frequently contribute heavily to state political campaigns. Similarly, teachers have a strong incentive to support state lotteries.