Social and Ethical Problems of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which participants pay a small amount of money for the chance to win a large sum of money. The prize money may be cash or goods, services or property. The lottery is a common form of gambling and is legal in many jurisdictions. In some countries, state governments oversee and regulate the lottery. In other cases, the lottery is run by private companies. The game is a popular source of revenue for state governments and provides an alternative to raising taxes. However, the lottery also poses a number of social and ethical problems.

The practice of making decisions and determining fates by the casting of lots has an ancient record, including several instances in the Bible. Its use for material gain is of more recent origin, although there are many examples. Modern lotteries include military conscription, commercial promotions in which property is given away, and the drawing of jurors from lists of registered voters. In addition, there are some types of lottery that have nothing to do with gambling at all: the awarding of prizes for military service, the assignment of government jobs, and the selection of members of public committees.

In the past, state governments used lotteries to raise funds for a variety of purposes, from building the British Museum and repairing bridges to supplying a battery of guns for defense of the American colonies and rebuilding Faneuil Hall in Boston. They were viewed as a relatively painless means of raising money, and they were especially popular in an era when there was much opposition to tax increases.

Since New Hampshire pioneered the modern era of lotteries in 1964, virtually all states have adopted them. The emergence of a lottery is typically preceded by a great deal of publicity and public debate. In the early days, the debate usually centers on whether or not a lottery is desirable. Eventually, the discussion shifts to the specific features of the proposed lottery and its operations.

Once a lottery is established, its revenue growth tends to accelerate in the first few years, then level off and even decline. The lottery operators respond by introducing new games to keep revenues growing. They also continue to advertise, which can be a major cost.

A second set of issues arises when it is realized that the lottery is promoting gambling. Specifically, it is encouraging people to spend more of their money than they could afford on the chance to win a huge jackpot. Those who promote the lottery argue that the benefits of such spending far outweigh the costs, but critics raise concerns about compulsive gambling and regressive effects on lower-income groups. In an anti-tax era, state governments are increasingly dependent on this type of “painless” revenue, and pressures to increase it are constantly rising. This creates a dilemma for legislators and governors who face difficult choices between increasing tax rates and increasing gambling. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of voters to decide whether or not to support these activities.